The Expats Of Sarnano

The town of Sarnano offers a change for Expats who have left their countries of origin. Not only is it a smaller world, one can also feel how the days flow smoother in this medieval town.

The city in which the Expats of Sarnano live
Sarnano, Macerata, Le Marche. Photo: Maurizio Paradisi for Marche Tourism, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr.
Definition of Expatriate : A person who lives outside their native country.

My town, Sarnano in Le Marche, has 3,400 souls. That number includes those in the historic center and surrounding area, homes climbing the hills, asphalted streets and fewer steps up than the Centro Storico. People say it is the Italy of memory, the best the country was, and is. There are less than a dozen North Americans, two or three returning to America on a regular basis. The expats have made Sarnano their address in the tax rolls and are accepted by Italians with courtesy, grace, and appreciation.

The Guide arranged tours of Italy and Ireland for many years. He came because Sarnano is in middle Italy and has access to large cities for his tours; 4 hours to Rome, 6 hours to Venice. All on the superstrada which doesn’t check your speed. At first he lived in a small apartment, badly laid out, but it did not matter. He drank too much. The stores were a short walk. He lived in the area of the Jewish ghetto 400 year earlier, away from the Piazza Alta with the Santa Maria Assunta Church and theater. His Italian was poor but the smile was sincere, the eyes twinkled and his presence was not an embarrassment. He sold the apartment to a Vermont couple, went to Texas, found it over-sized and uncomfortable, returned to Sarnano to purchase another apartment with striking views of the mountains. The windows and shutters are always closed. In his 80’s, he will live here to the end of his days, a fact the real estate broker has noted.

The Single Lady in her 50’s left Canada when her work was outsourced and the cost of living in Toronto became a burden. She had never married and thought her luck would turn in the hill town. She acquired sight unseen a two bedroom in the centro, overpaid and was shortchanged in every way. The steps to the front door would challenge a goat. She had never been in Italy but it was a change from the high towers near Lake Ontario with 30 studios and one bedrooms on every floor and gray carpet in the halls, a contrast to the gray painted walls. Diligent in her language skills, she has a pleasing appearance, and has expanded her search for a man with money and entertains women friends in town. She abandoned the Canadian man who introduced her to Sarnano and avoids North Americans, vestiges of an earlier life.

The Canadian who came with the Single Lady was in Sarnano because he had done his research and liked mountains and peace. He lived in a small group of homes owned by a single extended family for generations and bought a house which needed the renovations he enjoyed working on. It had been used as a rental and most things worked. He divorced two decades earlier, has a son in Toronto and no particular need of a woman’s company, comes to town for language lessons and to shop, makes three ingredient pastas, keeps a small refrigerator and smaller freezer, lives simply and speaks excellent Italian, bought a car for touring but uses it less than expected. The days pass in sun, silence and Netflix. A neighbor’s dog keeps the ‘cinghiali’ at bay who rut his garden. He thinks they have the right to live; it is their country as well. The road to his house has degraded over thirty years and he writes letters to the mayor. He offers tolerance and gratitude to Sarnano and his neighbors.

The Vermont couple live in a grand palazzo in the Centro Storico with a tarnished nameplate on the outer wall near the door and buzzers. He is a working architect with an active practice in Burlington which specializes in homes for the aged. A young woman from Milan did a stage at his firm. When he and his wife visited Italy, she mentioned a hill town and knew a man who acted as agent and directed them to the flat the tourist guide wished to sell. They bought immediately and spent more to improve the kitchen and bathroom. There is a balcony overlooking the main road where tractors shift gears and puff black smoke. The wife is deaf and does not hear the trucks. They changed the windows. He was ill with a serious disease. After the earthquakes they booked a flight home and have not returned. The palazzo was declared ‘inagìbile’ and the roof has fallen through. The building stands empty, apartments dark with moisture on the ceilings. The splendor has peeled.

The Young Man took a year off before going to college and is an au pair for a couple who understands that multiple languages are better than one. He has adapted, speaks dialect with the couple and teaches the children English, looks after them, makes friends with the casual ease of youth and enjoys the festas. Twenty years onward he will speak fondly of the hill town and its inhabitants. He is expected to return.

The retired American/Canadian who worked in transportation, spent years on merchant ships at sea, east of Suez, lives in the Centro with a maremmano puppy. His wife loved the town, and he wanted her to be happy. She died and is missed. He likes a country where people do not use guns to advance civilization. He greatly appreciates the shadows of the Centro, studies on the computer, understands more than he speaks and counts that as fair, does not wish to be noticed and limits his conversations in stores, but speaks to children and old people who walk slowly. He mistakes acceptance for affection.

Each expat brings baggage and will leave suitcases behind; combinations of regrets, mistakes, love, loss, triumphs, good and bad choices, rejection. You limit what you carry in your head, pay extra or leave it at the gate. In years it will all fuse; the family who become opponents, children who want early benefit from an estate; work and decisions remembered in pride or shame, all in the misted streets of yesterday, catalogs of weakness and strength, spoken in public and hurt. Politics drives them out, canyons of anger at opportunities lost for themselves and the country stretching 3,000 miles behind the bridge named for an Italian and the copper statue with the lamp in the big harbor. Madness to gain by staying, little lost in leaving. The heaviest carry-on will be photos, the triggers of years. Sunday dinners, family, friends and lovers, frozen moments. The worlds of Italy and America are separate, but images attach, bent cornered squares in the black paged album with soft covers. From birth to four score and twenty with stiff faces and another century’s clothing, earnest, staring into a future they will never know or could imagine. Were those people ever really alive? They speak so faintly that only stop motion animation remains, the projector broken.

When they come to Sarnano, new fears are welcome, clean and bright. Italy is rebirth, a blank page, no tragedy yet written. You buy fresh; no marks of passage. In America a move south or west every half decade, and old is 50 years, men and buildings. In Italy, old is 500 and echoing cobblestones. The expats sleep with smiles and replace the nightmares of habit.

They exit their countries and give reasons; histories are offered, listeners guess more from possessions and walls, things not said. The truth is shaded, lies, fragments of fictions. Joy and pain embrace, friends sitting together after an evening of wine. Memory’s voices are illusive; they run and hide, saved for nights with a glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Apple, remaining until the dawn breaks and pushes them away.

Other than the young man, expats think about dying in a country far from where they began. Disease and death are neighbors. It seems easier here than in America, the land of HMO’s, bed-filled hallways, electrically elevated pillows, restraints and public announcements of nursing shift changes to accompany last breaths.

Expats make adjustments in their life styles, think smaller and give up cars, or buy large, a tribute to marketing. Equality is in the Centro. A few are content to live in their minds with a preferred cafe. It is my belief that days flow smoother in Italy, one to the next, at least in this town. The small world is manageable; familiarity and distance share brick walls. Walking to the market and purchasing less than a pallet of toilet paper and ketchup from Costco creates a bond. The vendor will not sell a spotted orange but connects through perfect citrus, adding a fresh egg or two from home on occasion as a gift.

Most of the expats I know have a sense of place. They have ended the forever breaking news cycle on network television. As foreigners they are distanced from local politics. You become accustomed to wait at the bank for the sliding curved door with the green light, but don’t have automatic checkout machines with thousand car parking to total your purchases and send you to the verification desk. There is less choice in chemically saturated foods and no need for 75 varieties of cereal. Pasta is another matter.

I have not met one expat who is unhappy in Sarnano. They come for many reasons and stay for the people, food, wine and the beauty of Le Marche. They are thrilled to be here. In this town the past is released and gently lifts in the warmth of the summer breeze. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.