The Little Princes’ Valley -Walk with me

Another Sunday and another of the walks in the mountains I’ve been enjoying so much! I wasn’t going to write about this walk, but the sheer beauty of the place and its uniqeness compared to my other walks convinced me that it’s worth mentioning and certainly well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

We started off on a paved path in Gressoney St. Jean, which soon became a sandy road. The path runs past these beautiful houses with their resplendent flowers and wooden walls, so typical of this Walzer valley tucked away in the north of Italy. The path rose quite quickly into a larch forest, becoming narrower and more tortuous, the shady trees and light breeze providing a welcome coolness in contrast to patches of bright sun.

Once again, my attention was captured by the flowers… and the butterflies! So many bright jewels flitting by!

This was the day I learnt that my companions weren’t infallible. We took a bit of a detour because no one could remember with certainty which path we had to take. Was it 11A or 11B? We took the 11B path for ten or 15 minutes before deciding that we should go back and take the 11A. We climbed higher and higher with some debate going on and a fair amount of questioning of passers by. When we reached a meadow and stone huts, consensus was reached that we should have stayed on the other path but we would be able to find tbe path and join up with the other one. So we struck out across the meadow, passing the huts and climbing the hill behind them, looking for the path. Fortunately, the path became clear as we neared the top and we were off again, stopping briefly to munch on wild blueberries, exquisite little bursts of flavour such as I’ve never had before.

Snow hike

Nothing could be better than getting a late Saturday night message that says, “Do you want to go walking in the mountains with us tomorrow? ” I will admit, I hesitated before replying because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It never is, but the feeling of achievement when you get to your destination and the beauty of the walk is well worth the effort.

Bluest of skies contrasting with pristine snow.

This was only my second walk with snow shoes and the first was relatively easy, with long, flat stretches and a small climb in altitude. Not so for the second time! We stopped in a parking area of the village and had a short, steep walk to the start of the trail. I was already tired and I hadn’t even put on my snowshoes! When we started walking, the going was relatively flat and open. it was a beautiful, sunny day and though the air was crisp, the sun warmed us as we walked. Around us, the snow lay deep and heavy on the fields, sparkling iln the morning sun. I’m always amazed at how soft and powdery snow can be when it’s fresh, and the snow was about as fresh as you could get.

My snow shoes.

We started out eagerly, following a narrow trail forged by the early birds. Around us, there was a profound quiet such as you only get when the snow lies thick on the ground. An occasional soft thud signalled the falling snow from an overhead branch. The only other sound was my deep breaths and the chattering of the leaders, who obviously had no problem with shortness of breath.

What a stunning backdrop!
Friends make life better!
Forest snowdrifts
Icy river and snowcapped rocks

As I walked, my snow shoes collected the snow underfoot and seemed to get heavier and heavier. I had to stop regularly to tap my feet together and dislodge the snow. Just when I was getting to the end of my tether, we came towards a group of houses where we stopped for a short rest. Grateful for a drink, I admired the view before my friends chivvied me along the path again. Imagine my dismay when someone said, “That was the easy part. Now the hard part starts!”

Coming up to the houses. A welcome rest.

My heart sank. I briefly considered telling them I would wait at the houses for them. If it weren’t for the fact that someone was sure to volunteer to stay behind with me and I didn’t want to spoil the walk for anyone, I might have done that. As it was, I bit my tongue and slogged on. The gradient increased steeply and we passed through a forested area, zigzagging sharply in order to climb quickly.

Up, up, up. Am I falling behind?
Take that photo now because I’m not sure I’ll make it to the top!

A number of times I thought I couldn’t lift my legs another step, but it’s amazing what you can do when you have no other choice. I slogged on slowly with Lino behind me, encouraging me all the way and finally reached the lake where the others were already pulling out sandwhiches and flasks. I loved the applause they gave me! I did it! I grabbed my lunch and sank to the ground for a well-deserved rest.

Looking across the lake.
Pristine alpine beauty.
Snow-capped rock.
Lunch on the trail.

The break was all too short and before long we were heading down the trail again. Why is it that you seem to move so much faster on the homeward trail? My biggest problem was trying not to slip or fall on the steep slope and my knees and thighs shouted their displeasure at what I was doing. At one point I did slip. I put out a hand to save myself and, plof, my arm sank into the snowdrift up to my elbow. My face came up with snow all over my glasses and my knees were covered in snow too. Pity no one was close enough to take a photo. It made me smile though and when I told the others they said that everyone falls at least a few times.

Trying to get the snow on my shoulders.

When I arrived home, I could hardly lift my feet to get up the stairs. Would I do it again? You bet!

A little gem

Last Sunday I learnt some important lessons about living here and experiencing the beauty and diversity of my adopted country. First, there are little gems in tucked away places, waiting to be discovered by the traveller who is determined enough to go out and find them. Second, if you really want to know a place, ask a local. The jewel of this walk was a tiny village called Chemp, situated above Pont St Martin in the Aosta valley.

After a slight organizational hiccup, we parked our car near Nantey and started walking up a path between some houses. The weather was cool and overcast, sadly not the best for photographing the glorious autumn colours, but good for the approximately 600m climb that our walk would entail.

The mountains here are thickly wooded with chestnut trees and our path was strewn with bursting chestnut pods, their fat, shiny fruit begging to be collected. I’m not really a fan of chestnuts, they’re too floury for me, but even I couldn’t resist collecting a few for my son-in-law, who enjoys them.

Theres something magical about walking in a forest with the sound of the wind in the trees and a waterfall in the background. The forest seems alive and you feel as if you are breathing in its essence.

The path climbed steeply, passing over rock steps and around steep cliffs, until we found ourselves in a meadow with our objective, the village of Chemp, just beyond.

This little village was abandoned and slowly decaying, until the artist Angelo Giuseppe Bettoni discovered it and dreamt of breathing new life into it. He managed to buy one of the houses, which he uses as a summer home, and over the years, he has populated the village with sculptures, some his own and some by sculptor friends. A stroll through the village finds the visitor charmed by sculptures tucked away in little nooks and corners or proudly standing beside the buildings.

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This has to be one of my favourites!

Some of the houses and other buildings date back to the 1600s and 1700s.

The sculptor's house.

Who could resist this little fellow peeping round the corner of one of the houses?

And the pastoral peaceof this...

But don't forget to look up! IHard to believe it's all wood as it seems so light and carried on the wind.f you

If you’re interested, you can watch an evocative video containing some sculptures and the sculptor explaining his reasons for establishing an open air museum in this little corner of the world. He calls his project A Dream Carried on the Wind. It’s in Italian, but don’t mind that – just soak in the beauty of it.

Ps. For visitors who would prefer not to hike the mountain paths, there is a road to the village. If you’re in the area, don’t miss it.

Life Celebration # 18 An Italian Spring Sunday Afternoon

That view - food for the soul.
That view – food for the soul.

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Italian Sunday afternoon family entertainment - take the children for a walk anywhere public. the more people who see you, the better!
Italian Sunday afternoon family entertainment – take the children for a walk anywhere public. the more people who see you, the better!
Time to go home. That breeze was a little nippy!
Time to go home. That breeze was a little nippy!
Admiring our new ride
Admiring our new ride
Close-up view.
Close-up view.

Here’s to spring, warmth, sunshine and blue skies. We in the Northern hemisphere could all do with a little more of those.

How did you spend your Sunday afternoon? What did you celebrate today?

How to Make a New Life in Italy

Thinking of pulling up your roots and setting down in La Bella Italia? Well, you’ve popped in at just the right time. Pull up an armchair, make yourself comfortable and let’s get started. I have so many things to tell you.

Before you leave

– First, and most importantly, start at the beginning (or even earlier if possible). the best thing you could do now is go back about 15 years or so and marry an Italian. That’s right! Being married to an Italian makes the bureaucracy involved so much easier. If, prompted by your guardian angels, you have done such a thing, you’re home free. If not, you’ll have to follow the bureaucratic route and get a work visa and a “permesso di soggiorno” (literally a “permission to stay”). I can’t help you with details very much, as I didn’t have to do this since I married my Italian an age ago in sunny South Africa. But here’s a site where you can get information.

– Now that you’ve been bitten by the bug, here’s your most important job. Plan, Plan and Plan some more! How will you find work? Where will you live? Will you rent a property or buy? Remember that property prices and rentals are high in comparison to average salaries. Do your homework so that you know what your possibilities are. Get on the good old Internet and research every aspect you can think of.

At this point, an exploratory trip may be useful if you can afford it. If like us, you are selling a house and moving across lock, stock and barrel, think about whether it would be better to sell all your furniture and buy new furniture when you arrive or whether you want to take your furniture with you. There is very little market in Italy for second-hand goods, so I suggest you either keep it or sell it in your country. We moved a container of furniture (at great cost) and we could have left a lot of things behind. Use the opportunity to declutter your life and your home. Remember as well, that most Italian homes are small and anything extra is likely to get in the way. You’re going to want to throw it out when you don’t know where to put it!

Start learning Italian! This may seem like an obvious point, but I’m amazed at how many people I’ve met who are convinced that the rest of the world will speak their language – English. No. Most Italians do not speak English. In fact, few of them speak it at all, and very few of them speak it well. You’re visiting their country, pay them the respect of at least trying to speak their language.They will love you for it! And to get you started, here is one of the best learning Italian Podcasts I’ve found on the Net. Take a look. Listening is free and in-depth lesson notes are provided to paid subscribers.

Bolster your savings. In our experience, the first two or three years were the most difficult. If you don’t have a job immediately, or you’ve decided to work for yourself, those savings are going to disappear at an alarming rate and you’re going to need every penny of them. It takes time to build up work relationships and a customer base in a country where everything revolves around “raccomandazioni”. My husband networked with his initial clients to expand his client base, but it took a long time.

When you get here

This is when the most exciting part starts! And this is where the fork meets the pasta. Your success and your happiness depend on what you do now. Speak Italian as much as possible, even if your hair curls and you instinctively cringe to hear your crummy accent or your poor grammar. It doesn’t matter! No one expects perfection. Were you basically understood? Yes? Then you did well. No? Then find out where you went wrong and work on it. It’s tempting to stop talking because you feel so stupid. I know; I’ve been there. But you have to fight that temptation. If you can afford to do an Italian course, find one in your area. If not, many local municipalities (“comune” in Italian) offer free Italian lessons for foreigners. Take advantage of them! Courses have two benefits: they get you talking and they get you out of the house and meeting people. It’s a win-win situation!

– In conversation, avoid negative comparisons between your country and Italy (unless you’re showing the negative side of your own country). Nobody likes hearing their homeland criticized by another, and even less by a visitor. When I was a child, we called Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) settlers in South Africa “when-wes” because many of their conversations started with, “when we were in Rhodesia…”and ended with some negative comment about South Africa. Don’t be a when-we. Focus on the positive and people will respond to you in a positive way.

Accept that your new life will never be the same as the old. La Bella Italia is a seductive force, but she can also be a hard task master. Accept the bad with the good and you’ll have more chance of a fulfilling, ulcer free stay. Getting any official documents can be a slow nightmare and often one department doesn’t know what another department requires and instructions may be conflicting. Take a deep breath and go with the flow. You will get there eventually, along with all the other poor souls in the waiting room with you. Use the time and the camaraderie to practice your Italian.

In many official places, as well as banks, hospital departments and some shops or market stalls, you will be expected to take a number from a machine standing in the corner and wait your turn. This is a good thing, as it scuppers any inveterate queue jumpers from reverting to their normal bad behaviour! Everyone knows that Italians are incapable of forming and maintaining a single queue. Queues without numbers quickly degenerate into multiple queues or (my personal favourite) a nondescript clump where the jumpers sneakily migrate to the front. Take a number and advise others to do the same. you will enjoy the peace!

– If you are entitled to do so, use the public health system, but don’t abuse it. Like most national health systems, it is by no means perfect, but it is better than nothing. Accept that there is a waiting list for certain types of treatment, but know that if it were an emergency, you would get the help you need.

Enjoy the beauty around you. Get out of the house as much as possible. Try new things. Learn to snowboard or ski. Make a list of the places you want to see and start crossing them off. Even if it is only at the rate of one place a year, you will be living your dream. Take pictures and tell friends about the journey.

Keep a journal. I have a number of journals, and when I look back, I can see how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown. My journals remind me of the places I’ve been, the beauty I’ve seen and the people I’ve met along the way. Don’t be afraid to write down your sad moments too. Reading them later helps you realize how blessed you have been and how your sadness has been lifted. Talking of sadness, most people battle with depression of some form when making a move such as this. Initially, you feel lost and isolated. All your points of reference have disappeared. It’s okay. Ride it out as much as you can, but don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it. In the first years after our move, I often found myself “recognising” distant friends with a leap of the heart followed by the sinking realisation that this person wasn’t the friend who was far away back home. It happened less and less as time went by and now, twelve years later, it hardly ever happens.

Nowadays, I’m far more likely to hear my name called when I’m out and about, to be greeted with kisses and to be invited to stop for coffee in a bar. And when it happens, I’m always a little surprised and thrilled. And I think to myself, “This is my life. I really have made a new life here.” And you can too!

You’ve done the preparation. you’ve done the maths. Now go out and start living your dream!

Revised Dec 2014

Tulip tripping

Finally! I’ve managed to do one of the things I’ve wanted to do ever since I  got here. A trip to Castello di Pralormo to see the garden planted with 50 000 tulip bulbs. What a sight! And to make the trip even more enjoyable, I invited a friend to join me.

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The entrance – crowds of people gathered at opening time.

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Swathes of tulips of various colours line the gravel paths around the castle gardens.

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Whimsical woodland creatures to spy in the undergrowth.

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Looking back at the castle from the garden.

The sun may not have been shining, but in my heart, it was a beautiful sunny day. The best way to spend a tranquil Sunday.

It ain’t easy

Having been in Italy for 10, no 11 years now, I was shocked and embarrassed to realise that my Italian has been deteriorating over the last few years. How can that be when I live in Italy? Well, I spend most of my days teaching English and we generally speak English at home. On top of that, I watch satellite tv – in English. I know I should watch Italian tv, but the local tv lineup is, to put it quite plainly, pathetic. So English it is.

This summer I decided to work on my Italian and asked my neighbour to help me. She rose to the occasion, giving me page after page of exercises to complete, and I set to with a will. I listed nouns and their plurals, masculine and feminine (one of the difficulties of Italian – everything has a gender and sometimes, the gender changes!) And of course, there are the dreaded verb conjugations.

I’m improving slowly, but my brain seems fossilised. I’m learning the truth of the language teacher’s dictum – use it or lose it! If I don’t work on the sentences every week, I forget the conjugations. SIGH! I now have a renewed respect for my students, who are learning a foreign language in an environment where they almost NEVER have the opportunity house it – but they battle on to victory most of the time.

So, what do other foreigners living in Italy do to improve their use of the language.  Do you just give up and accept that you”ll never be perfect or do you work at it every week? What’s your nemesis? Mine is the conjunctive and the conditional, not to even mention passato remoto!  What’s your secret to better Italian? Please share it with us.