Author Chris Harrison has written both a travel guide and a love story. The Australian’s book, Head Over Heel, features his experiences relocating from Dublin to Andrano in the south of Italy, with his girlfriend Daniela.
The book was inspired by a comical sequence of events that Chris experienced when he visited the police station to report the theft of his wife’s handbag. It was later returned, but when he went to inform the police of the good news, the officer didn’t have the correct form for reporting the return of stolen goods! “The cop’s old Olivetti typewriter was missing the number five key too, so we had to change our address on the report,” recalls Chris.
The book is peppered with stories that you couldn’t possibly make up. Chris went for a medical to get his NHS card equivalent and recalls how the doctor plied him with homemade limoncello. “He got me so drunk I ended up speaking to his parrot,” says Chris. He’s since found another GP, but I wondered whether more British blokes would go to the doctor if there was a bar available.
You get a sense that living in Italy can be wonderful but also a challenge. “It’s a great place to live when you want to do all the things you’d expect of Italy – go to the beach, have a siesta, eat pasta and drink wine. But when the sun goes down and you need to think about work and making a living, or you want a person to say yes or stick to a delivery time, life gets frustrating,” says Chris. “You cannot change things and if you try to you will be unhappy,” he adds.
You might have seen those TV reality programmes where people relocate to Italy and transform a run-down property. Chris said he’d never attempt that unless he had an insider like Daniela who spoke the language and knew local people. Even then, the red tape has been a nightmare for some of his Italian friends. “One house was classified as outside the town so they could put in a pool. But while they were installing it, the local council moved the sign and it meant that the property was now within the town, so they couldn’t have a pool any more,” he recalls.
Chris said the cultural differences became noticeable when he didn’t want to get married in church. Daniela’s auntie is a nun, which didn’t help matters. ”We got married in a 14th century castle with a civil service by the mayor who was wearing a tri-coloured sash.” Chris was pleased that he stuck to his principles. “It was nice when some people who had put my lack of belief under the microscope came up afterwards and told me that they’d seen more love on display there than they would see in a church wedding.”
So how do you fit in and not irritate the neighbours? “You can never be sure that you haven’t annoyed them,” says Chris, but learning the local language and customs as much as possible and getting involved in life are his tips. “Locals will be so welcoming. You will find friendships even when you are not looking for them,” he says. Chris and Daniela no longer live in Italy but they return regularly. “The friends my children have made in the two week visits would have taken years to find in Australia.”
It’s also a safe place. “You can let the kids run off and play by themselves at night. We had a vague idea where they were last night, as long as they keep off the road,” he says. “We are yet to suffer any crime.” Except a stolen handbag, I interject, before Chris reminds me that it was returned.
Food required some cultural readjustment too. “The big surprise is that they eat a lot of horsemeat which takes some getting used to. I used to struggle with it and didn’t like eating something that was more intelligent than myself,” he laughs. Sometimes they cut it up finely and put in pasta he says. He’s now acquired the taste.
Chris is an advocate for visiting the Andrano area and he says that low cost carriers should be commended for providing flights to a previously undiscovered part of Italy. “People knock Ryanair but they have opened up so many places and given visitors a chance to discover destinations that they otherwise would not have seen.”
Chris remembers what the area used to be like. “When I first arrived at this place 15 years ago it was so sleepy and quiet with very few tourists. Now there are English-speaking visitors all over the place. It is an off-the-beaten-track place with a raw beauty.” Ryanair fly to Bari and Brindisi and it’s around an hours drive from those airports. “You’ll need a car,” he cautions.
I ask him about the Italian driving stereotype. “If you drive you will need a sense of adventure,” he laughs. “Stop signs and road signs point in different directions and you need to have a very open mind and take things easy. You need to scan the road ahead. Anything can happen. I have had some adventures and misadventures – fortunately nothing too serious but it is dangerous.”
Chris is now on a roll about the joys of Andrano. “It’s all about beaches and archaeology and history. There’s a large mosaic on the cathedral floor and nearly every town has a castle. Inland there are beautiful old houses and olive trees. There’s something for everyone,” he enthuses.
So what about the beaches, I ask, knowing how important they are to Aussies. “It’s all rocks on the Adriatic side and there’s no surf, which if you’re an Aussie, takes a bit of getting used to,” he says. Chris’ general message is to get over to Andrano, sit back and soak up local life.
“Just wander around the non-touristy areas, head into any piazza at around 6PM on a summer’s afternoon and you’ll see people selling mattresses from the back of a truck, colourful exchanges and generally beautiful, nice people getting along”
Head over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy is available on Amazon.
Listen to my full conversation with Chris Harrison here: