Adapting to Italy


It hardly seems possible, but we’ve been here nearly 5 months now.  During that time, we’ve managed to:

  • Convert our extended-stay visa into a renewable “permesso di soggiorno”
  • Register as residents of the community, and get a “carta d’identita” (photo ID)
  • Establish a local bank account
  • Buy a (used) car
  • Enroll in the national health care system

Most of these tasks had to be done in a particular order — you needed a permesso before you could register as a resident, and you needed a residency card before you could buy a car or enroll in the national health care system.  They required interacting with the much-maligned Italian bureaucracy (typically referred to as “purgatory on earth,” even by Italians).  We had some frustrations, but for the most part things went much better than we had anticipate.  It helped immeasurably that we were often accompanied by a local resident to do many of these things, which gave us a certain credibility.  Personal relationships count for a lot in Italy.

I was amazed, though, at the amount of paperwork required for even the simplest transactions.  If you want to buy a car in the US, you go to the dealer, pick out your car, haggle a bit, plop down your credit card and drive off the lot.  In Italy, buying a car required three trips.  On the first trip, we identified the car we wanted to buy, which as it turned out was at a different location and had to be delivered. On the second trip, we inspected and test drove the car, and signed a purchase contract.  After the second visit, we paid for the car by wire transfer (they don’t take credit cards, and checks aren’t used here), and purchased insurance.  (Wire transfers have to be done physically at the bank if they’re over €5000, and only in the morning.)  Only then, on the third visit, were we able to take possession of the car.

Getting into the medical care system, on the other hand, was a lot easier than in the US.  Italy allows immigrants with long-term residency permits to buy into the national health system.  Once you’ve paid your money, you go to the appropriate office, select a primary care doctor from a list, and you are enrolled.  We were able to see our primary care doctor within a couple of days.  Arranging specialist consultations takes a bit longer (1-3 months); but we’ve been told that urgent needs can be addressed more quickly.  So far, it’s a success story.

Overall, we’ve been pleased with how easy it has been to adapt here.  As I’ve noted before, people in Ascoli are remarkably welcoming, and are very forgiving of our rudimentary Italian.  In addition to socializing with the tiny expat community here, we’ve made some local friends, who have been very helpful in suggesting things to do.  We consider ourselves very fortunate.



In search of Lorenzo

(guest post by Ted)

Yesterday, we saddled up our tiny Clio and drove 70 km north to Recanati, in the province of Macerata.   Recanati is an old and tidy little town of red brick sitting on top of a ridge-line.  When we emerged from the underground car-park into the market square, the political partisans were in full display glad-handing, this being election season.  However, unlike Ascoli where Lega Nord, Forza Italia, CasaPound, and Fratelli d’Italia hold sway, here the partisans carry the red banners of the left.  I suspect that nothing like the Saturnalia-like festival of misrule that was Carnevale in Ascoli takes place here (see Linda’s previous post).

However, we were in Recanati to see the works of Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557), a lesser-known renaissance master who was active in the Marche during the first half of the 16th Century.  Tucked off into a palazzo at one end of town was a very small but marvelous exhibit of Lotto’s painting.

We first saw this portrait of a young man who is ill:


It’s remarkable to think that this work was completed in 1527; there is such deep psychological insight present as the young man ponders the impermanence of life or perhaps a lost love (note the fallen rose petals).  The painting contains further symbology in that the young man has turned his back on worldly pleasures (hunting horn, lute) in favor of a virtuous, but perhaps passion-less, life (e..g, book, lizard in the light).

Turning the corner, there was something completely different:


This is not your father’s polittico.  It’s in the late medieval style, but the characterizations and settings are fully Renaissance. Check out the saints in the bottom left.  They’re straight out of central casting for Goodfellows.


And the painter manages to convey more life and power through the dead body of Jesus than in any other of the images:


Finally, there was this surprising Annunciazione:


I don’t know about you, but it looks to me like Mary wants no part of this undertaking.  The presence of the cat is also quite mysterious, and some of the other objects in the painting are interesting.  For example, note the hour-glass and the a prayer shawl (a tallit?) hanging in the background.  In Lotto’s Annunciazione, the angel — a spiritual being — casts a shadow.

That was pretty much it.  Only a few works, but well worth it.

After lunch, we hopped over to the next village, the shrine town of Loreto where there was another exhibit including Lotto’s works.  Sadly, they did not allow photos.  So I’ll conclude with the works of Lotto’s predecessors Luca Signorelli (1445-1523) and Melozzo da Forli (1448-1494) from the Loreto basilica.  The work of the latter is particularly surprising and forward-looking given its three dimensional effects.




Life is a Carnevale

We’ve just enjoyed our first Carnevale season in Ascoli.  Carnevale is the same holiday that is known as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, only here it is celebrated for nearly a week, beginning with a children’s carnival on the preceding Thursday.  We were told by locals that the festival has deep roots here, dating perhaps to Roman times.  It was traditionally a time when common people could vent their frustration at the powerful.

Ascoli is not really set up for parades, so during Carnevale, the town’s two main squares are venues for all the action.  The Piazza del Popolo is decorated with hanging chandeliers, installed on wires by small “cherry-picker” type vehicles.  (The town puts up different, and equally elaborate, decorations for Christmas.  They must have vast sheds where these items are kept during the off-season.)  It’s traditional during Carnevale to throw paper streamers and confetti — there was so much strewn on the marble pavement that it almost looked like snow.


Carnevale is a time for dressing up, for adults as well as children.  Grown men walk around unselfconsciously in full-length rabbit or tiger suits.  Some of the costumes are really elaborate — one young woman wore an historically accurate 18th C outfit, complete with ruffles and hat.

DSC02952Many of the costumes were merely whimsical.  There were toddlers dressed as Musketeers, complete with tiny beards.  Fred Flintstone made an appearance in his Stone Age vehicle, as did Dorothy Gale and her friends from Oz.

In additional to individual costumes, there were moving floats and little booths set up for skits — an open-air theatrical tradition that must date back to the Middle Ages.  In keeping with the festival’s roots, many of these had a political flavor, although they mostly dealt with local issues, like the complicated new recycling system or the location of the new hospital.  There was an “American dance troupe,” wearing Stetson hats and cowboy boots, dancing to the music of the Irish Rovers.  (What could be more American?)

20180211_154156My favorite exhibit, though, was the “synchronized swimming team,” men unjustly denied their chance at Olympic glory by gender discrimination.


A favorite butt of jokes during this Carnevale was the new recycling system, which requires that folks but out various types of differentiated rifiuiti on each night.  You can imagine that this level of regulation is a hard sell.


There were also special pastries sold only during Carnevale.  Some of them have strange names, like chestnut ravioli, which are ravioli-shaped pastries filled with chestnut paste.  These days, you can get these pastry “ravioli” with chocolate or cream filling, too.  They were excellent, but like most of the pastries here, a small amount goes a long way.

There was live music most evenings in the Piazza during Carnevale week.  And, while lots of beer and wine was being sold, nobody was obviously drunk.  In Italy, people manage to have a good time without getting blitzed, making them fun for “children of all ages.”

But of course, everyone must have a mask:



Christmas in Ascoli Piceno

A lot of you have asked for pictures along with my infrequent updates.  Here are a few photos from the town we are living in now, Ascoli Piceno.


Piazza del Popolo


… with Christmas decorations and antique market


… with schoolkids celebrating St. Cecilia’s Day in song.

The Piazza del Popolo, the “people’s piazza” fittingly has no traffic.  The pavement is in travertine marble, and it is considered one of the prettiest squares in Europe.


Piazza Arringo, with Cattedrale in the rear … market day


… with the local Bersaglieri band.

The city’s second main square, the Piazza Arringo, fronts the cathedral of St. Emidio (who guards Ascoli from earthquakes).  The name Arringo either means “herring” or “harangue” depending on who you talk to.  Each of these main squares is used for all sorts of public events, from weekly markets to impromptu music concerts.

Perhaps because the city was Papal territory, it has a number of other churches, some with fascinating architectural details.








The symbol of the city is the woodpecker (Picus in Latin).  According to legend, a group of Italic tribesman crossed the Apennines (slantwise, no doubt) to escape the Romans, following a woodpecker, and stopped where the woodpecker did.  These days, live woodpeckers are hard to spot, but the symbol appears in various spots around the city.


As in many Italian towns, Christmas decorations pop up everywhere, sometimes in unexpected places.


The city sits between two rivers, the Tronto and the Castellano, and a number of bridges cross the town, allowing for some lovely views.  And, of course, the Apennine mountains are not far away.


Ascoli, looking over the Tronto


…. with snowy wintertime Apennines in the distance

The city has a jewel box of a theater, which offers musical and theatrical performances.  Here we are waiting for La Boheme.


Teatro Ventidio Basso

We’re about 45 minutes from the Adriatic here.  Along the coast there are a number of small towns which are quite peaceful in the off-season.


Cupra Marittima



One of the nice things about being in Ascoli is the ability to take trips to other parts of Italy without getting on a plane.  Here we are in Montefalco (just over the mountains in Umbria).  The 15th C fresco of St. Jerome taming the lion is by Benozzo Gozzoli.  As you can see, Jerome’s colleagues are not particularly amused.


Gozzoli fresco of St. Jerome

Where’s Linda?

It’s been two months now since we moved to Italy, and I haven’t written a thing.  Some of you must be wondering if I fell off the face of the earth.


About a week after I got here, I broke my wrist falling UP a stone staircase. I missed my footing and fell forward, with my whole body weight falling on top of my right wrist.  A trip to the ER confirmed a fracture.  Unlucky.

Fortunately, medical care is good here.  ER services (broadly defined to include full treatment of my broken bone) are free here, regardless of insurance status or residency.  After nearly 8 weeks in two different casts, my arm is finally liberated.  My wrist is still stiff, which I understand is completely normal and is being addressed by follow-up physical therapy (the first medical service I am actually paying for, but not very much). I’ve never broken a bone before, and the healing process has been frustratingly slow. I may be young at heart, but my bones know how old I am.  But at least I’m typing with two hands now.

Other than that, things have been going very well here.  We have rented a nice apartment in what was once an 18th C palazzo, subsequently divided into 9 individual apartments.  Most of the other residents own their apartments, and seem to have been here for a while, which means we are living in a small community instead of an impersonal apartment building.  We feel very fortunate.

Setting up phone and Internet service was a lot easier than we thought it would be.  Cell phone services operate by short-term contract here, in amounts that sound cheap but, once you total up all the additional service charges, is not as good a deal as it looks. Internet service is very good.  We even have streaming TV, which gives us access to international Netflix and Amazon offerings.  Just as well, since Italian network TV really isn’t very good.

We even managed to get a bank account, which means we finally have a debit card that will work in European toll machines and automated gas stations.

Food is good everywhere in Italy, but we seem to have stumbled into a hidden food paradise here.  Ascoli is in the heavily agricultural Marche region, and is just across the river from the Abruzzo region, which is even more agricultural.  The local farmer’s market runs 6 days a week, with plenty of green vegetables even as winter approaches.  The vendors also bring whatever other products they happen to have available – eggs, olives and olive oil, dried beans – all at amazingly cheap prices. Most of the meat found in stores is also locally raised.  Farm-to-table never stopped being a reality here.  It’s hyper-local, though — you can get oranges and tomatoes from Sicily at the local supermarket, but if you want asparagus in November, you’re out of luck.

Ascoli itself is a charming town, with two squares, Piazza Arringo (limited vehicle traffic) and Piazza del Popolo (no vehicles) which act as virtual living rooms for the whole community.  There’s always something going on, whether it’s the monthly antiquarian market, an impromptu school concert, or a seasonal ice skating rink.  And it has a surprising amount of cultural activity for a town of 50,000 – chamber music concerts, theater, even opera – which we’re taking full advantage of.

Not that many people speak English here, but they are very accepting of my high-school Italian.  Each of us is doing some online learning, and a bilingual friend comes over once in a while to work on conversation.  The Italian government offers free language instruction for new residents, but we are waiting for Ted to catch up a bit so that we can both be in the same class.

We chose Ascoli in part because you can live here without a car.  Everything you need for daily life is accessible on foot or by public transportation (bus or train).  However, we soon discovered that if you wanted to visit wineries, explore one of the many hill towns in the area, or even cross the mountains into Tuscany or Umbria, it was very helpful to have a car.  We rented one for a month and enjoyed the experience – we will probably seek to buy a car of our own after the New Year.

That’s all for now – I hope it won’t be too long until the next update.