"I am a HUGE fan of Italy’s national healthcare system, despite its flaws and inefficiencies. Pregnant women really get the red carpet treatment here, and almost all of my prenatal care, expect for some tests, was covered by the national system. When I had a cesarean, I was required to stay in the hospital four nights – no rushing women out like they do in the U.S. While the hospital itself is not very high on comfort – bad beds, no TV in the room, horrible food, etc., – every time my baby cried, a nurse appeared and helped me with her. So, overall, I found the standard of care very attentive and high" (EH, Oct 21)
What is your name, age and how long have you lived in Umbria? Which part of Umbria do you live in ?
Elizabeth Heath, 46. I have lived in Umbria since 2009. We are in a hilltop village north of Orvieto, near the border where Umbria, Tuscany and Lazio meet.
Why did you move there?
I moved here to marry my husband! We met in Orvieto in 2008, when I spent the summer there. We married in September of 2009.
What is the area like where you live?
We live in a rural farming area which is still rich with contadini traditions. The area is hilly and covered with vineyards and olive groves. There are also several protected parks and forests near us, so we are very close to nature.
What nationality are you and your partner?
I am from the U.S., Paolo is Italian.
How many children do you have, what are their names and when were they born?
We have one daughter, Naomi, who will be a year old at the end of November. (born 2011)
What was your experience of having a baby in Umbria?
For the most part, very positive. I am a HUGE fan of Italy’s national healthcare system, despite its flaws and inefficiencies. Pregnant women really get the red carpet treatment here, and almost all of my prenatal care, expect for some tests, was covered by the national system. When I had a cesarean, I was required to stay in the hospital four nights – no rushing women out like they do in the U.S. While the hospital itself is not very high on comfort – bad beds, no TV in the room, horrible food, etc., – every time my baby cried, a nurse appeared and helped me with her. So, overall, I found the standard of care very attentive and high.
Do you work and if so what do you do?
I am a writer and editor for websites and bloggers, and I work nearly full time from home. I also write my own personal blog, firstname.lastname@example.org about my life in the Italian countryside.
Did you buy or rent your property? How did you find the process?
Paolo and I bought a house in late 2010. Even with an Italian in my corner, the process was drawn-out and complicated. It took nearly a year from when we signed the purchase agreement with the owners (there were 8 of them, all cousins!) to when we closed on the house. Then we waited an eternity to get permits to renovate, and even those came in stages.
So, I can’t speak for how the process would be for expats buying on their own. Virtually everything about me settling in Italy, in terms of legalese and cultural adjustment, has been made easier by the fact that I married an Italian.
How well integrated would you say you and your family are?
Well, since my husband is Italian and born and raised in our village, we are pretty well integrated! I confess that I still do feel like something of an outsider at times, even though Paolo’s family and the village have been very welcoming of me. I think a certain feeling of that is inevitable, and never goes away.
What language do you speak to your children?
I speak exclusively English to Naomi, and Paolo speaks only Italian to her. Since I am the only person who speaks English to her (and she hears me speak Italian to everyone else), it will be interesting to see how quickly she picks up English. I expect Italian will come first. (Right now, all she says is “mamma” and “babba” – “babbo” is “daddy” in Italian.)
Do you think it essential to speak Italian when relocating to Umbria?
I do think so. Or at least, one needs to learn very soon after getting here. There are other Americans in my town who do not speak Italian very well at all, and I really see them struggle, especially when it comes to doctors’ visits or lab work, having work done at their homes, or something technical, say like a phone or internet outage. Even in Orvieto, which is a decent-sized city with a lot of tourist traffic, there just aren’t that many Italians who speak English well, if at all (nor should they have to).
Again, an advantage of marrying an Italian who speaks very little English is that I had to learn to speak Italian, and I learned by total immersion. There’s no way I would have learned so quickly on my own, or with an English-speaking spouse. So I sympathize with those expats who still struggle with the language, but it is absolutely essential that they learn.
What is your impression of childcare and education in Umbria?
It’s a little soon for me to comment on that, but my impression of the public schools – at least what I’ve seen with Paolo’s school-age nieces, is that the emphasis is very much on rote learning, with little room for creativity and little emphasis on critical thinking. Unfortunately, there is not a private international school in Orvieto or anywhere nearby, otherwise I would already be planning to enroll Naomi. Maybe one will open before she starts school!
As far as childcare, again, I have the home team advantage. Because I started working a lot again after Naomi was born, we have a paid babysitter for 3 hours each weekday morning. Then, every afternoon after lunch, I take her to my mother in law, who watches her for about 4 more hours so I can work some more. She is surrounded by cousins, aunts, great aunts, nonnas, etc., all of whom shower her with attention and affection. Virtually any time we need a babysitter, we can find one in our family.
What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a parent from the International Community living in Umbria?
The biggest advantage is the whole “it takes a village” concept of child-rearing. I have a degree of help here that I could never imagine having in the U.S.; it’s simply not the cultural norm in the U.S. for family members to voluntarily assist with raising one another’s children. When my 12 year old nephew visited this summer, he could go out and play with kids his own age, have the run of the (small) town and come back after dark – unthinkable in the U.S.! Yet here, everyone knows everyone else’s kids, and watches out for them.
For me, the disadvantage of being a parent in Umbria is that I often don’t feel that I have much of a voice. In our small village, there are a lot of old wives and a lot of old wives’ tales when it comes to child-rearing. Getting my mother in law, for instance, to accept any modern idea of how to take care of a baby falls on deaf ears. I found this to be true in the hospital as well; parent simply aren’t expected to question the doctors and nurses and when they do, it’s clear that it’s not appreciated. I anticipate that this will be a problem when Naomi starts school as well; I may be a very unpopular mom with her teachers if I ever question their methods.
How welcoming were the locals when you arrived in Umbria?
Very much so, because I was Paolo’s “American girl.” Some of them may have been a little put off by me, as I was unaccustomed to the subtle social customs here, but slowly but surely, most have warmed up to me, especially as my Italian has improved. I’ve also found, as one finds anywhere, that there are people I want to socialize and be friendly with, and people with whom I don’t want to do so.
Would you say your area is family-friendly and is there anything you think would improve children´s lives where you live?
The area is family friendly, though our village is at a disadvantage as there is little to draw new families here, and little to keep existing ones. Our elementary school closed a couple of years ago, so now all the kids (about 15 of them) are bused to the nearest town, about 7 kilometers away. So, that is discouraging. But as more and more people move to cities and suburbs where there is more work, better shopping, more conveniences, etc., this is the story of a thousand other Italian hilltop villages – picturesque and dying. Sad but true. :(
Are you able to recommend to other MumAbroad members in the area any local services (home delivery, plumbers, dentists, babysitters etc) or any activities, restaurants or shops for children in the area?
Well, I am biased, as my husband is a stonemason and does general construction and renovation. So I can certainly recommend him! We renovated our house, so we know some good tradesmen and some to avoid. I won’t let anyone steal my babysitter ;>…and I do know several kid friendly restaurants (though all of Italy is fairly kid-friendly; you’d have to go to a very high end restaurant to find a place where children and babies weren’t welcomed.) I have a great pediatrician – Dr. Cyro Manno, who is very progressive in his thinking and practice.
What advice would you give for anyone having a baby or thinking of relocating to Umrbia with children?
Hmm, you really have to stick to your guns in terms of caring for your baby on your terms. This was hard for me as a first time mom; I felt like maybe I didn’t know best, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. But you have to risk being unpopular in order to enforce your standards for your baby. I’m fairly certain that most Italian mammas and doctors haven’t read a recent book on child-rearing. For example, I have been mocked for wanting Naomi to eat only organic food. It’s hard to find here and it costs more, plus a lot of Italians – even doctors! – are suspicious of it. I wish I’d been stronger about some things I let slide in order to avoid conflict. And if we have a second baby, I won’t allow myself to get pushed around quite as much.
I should add that I don’t think this is exclusive to Italy – I think this would be any foreigner’s experience in any country. Every culture has its way of doing things, and a straniera who tries to do things differently will be looked upon with a certain amount of contempt. So, in saying these things, I’m not particularly down on Italy…it’s just something new moms would have to be firm about in any foreign setting.
What couldn´t you live without in Umbria?
Sunflowers! Healthcare. Eating bruschetta the evening we bring our own olive oil home from the mill. That I am on a first name basis with everyone in town. Our easy access to nature. That I go a 14th century palazzo, with frescoed ceilings and original tile floors to visit my gynecologist. Roman and Etruscan ruins that we practically trip over. The vast sense of history and layers of time under my feet…that’s what drew me to Italy in the first place. That Rome and Florence are a train ride away. Gosh, I could go on and on!
What could you live without in Umbria?!
That I am on a first name basis with everyone in town! (LOL) Seriously, the closeness and closed-ness of life in a small village can be stifling at times. People can be gossipy, so one needs to be very circumspect and not give them anything to gossip about.
Apart from that, the thing that causes me the most grief here, apart from being separated from my U.S. family, is the lack of concern for animal welfare. No one spays or neuters, and there are strays and abandoned dogs and cats everywhere. Yet people still buy new kittens and puppies all the time. Plus as an animal lover (I like dogs more than I like most people), I’ve really had to harden my heart to a lot of abuse and neglect. I’ve reported some cases, often to deaf-eared or impotent authorities. Things are improving, slowly, but to be an animal lover in a community of hunters and people who don’t see the emotional value of animals, it’s tough.