Lucy in Pavia. Her Story

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

Marrying a guy from Uruguay took Lucy Perez from her home in New Zealand to the other side of the world in 2001 and deposited her, firmly ensconced, in Pavia, Northern Italy.

She left a top-notch financial manager job at Carter Holt Harvey in Auckland, then a comfortable existence in the geothermal city of Rotorua. Good friends and family in New Zealand tugged hard until opportunity conquered doubt, and she blithely agreed to accompany husband Fernando on the trip of a lifetime. Their kids, Gabriela and Alejandro, were 4 and 5.

Rome was first port of call. Cold, sub-zero - minus 4 degrees Celcius to be precise – and unsurprisingly, the two cities, Rotorua and Rome, though both starting with the letter R, couldn’t have been more different.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

Marrying a guy from Uruguay took Lucy Perez from her home in New Zealand to the other side of the world in 2001 and deposited her, firmly ensconced, in Pavia, Northern Italy.

She left a top-notch financial manager job at Carter Holt Harvey in Auckland, then a comfortable existence in the geothermal city of Rotorua. Good friends and family in New Zealand tugged hard until opportunity conquered doubt, and she blithely agreed to accompany husband Fernando on the trip of a lifetime. Their kids, Gabriela and Alejandro, were 4 and 5.

Rome was first port of call. Cold, sub-zero – minus 4 degrees Celcius to be precise – and unsurprisingly, the two cities, Rotorua and Rome, though both starting with the letter R, couldn’t have been more different.

Fernando’s work as a portfolio manager was in Milan. Lucy says that over the past decade, the face of Milan has changed exponentially, but in 2001, when the family flew in with their two young children, it was a different city. Milan was dirty, chaotic, and it was crazily busy. With a population of over a million, it was also a major culture shock for Lucy; she couldn’t live there, and she couldn’t get out fast enough.

The couple decided to trial a 35-kilometre, 30-minute commute south to the pretty university town of Pavia, and there they stayed for the next 20 years. But immigrating wasn’t easy, and Lucy’s new home forced her into an uncomfortable transition from local Kiwi to foreigner.

Why Pavia? Well, first, a little history lesson – a subject Lucy would later teach alongside English linguistics at Scuola Internazionale di Pavia.

The appeal of Pavia was indeed its historical and cultural significance. It has the second oldest university in Europe, a world famous medical school, and was one of the first centres globally to successfully conduct heart transplants.

Initially settled by the ancient Ligures people, in time to come it was occupied by Gaulish tribes and then conquered by the Romans in 220 B.C.

Many leaders fought for the rights to own Pavia. The fearful, war-loving Attila the Hun managed to sack the city in 452 using bloody attacks and bribes of precious metals to buy followers. When Attila died suddenly in 453, he left a crumbling empire and an open playing field for new rule.

It was a busy and brutal time for Italy from then on, with hundreds of battles for dominance following in quick succession. Finally, in 475, Orestes, a former secretary of Attila, proclaimed his son Flavius Momyllus Romulus Augustus to be Emperor. Soon after, Orestes fled to Pavia, where he was executed by the army of Flavius Odoacer (King of Italy, 476-493).

Orestes’ son, known derisively as Romulus Augustulus (a diminutive form of Augustus), and too young at age 16 to be respectfully acknowledged as a ‘proper’ emperor, was immediately overthrown by Odoacer, who none the less took pity on him and refrained from decapitating the youngster. When Odoacer asserted his power in 476, his rule marked the end of the Western Roman Empire – better known as the Fall of the Roman Empire and the End of Ancient Rome.

“The Roman Empire was not only a political unity enforced by the use of military power. It was also the combined and elaborated civilization of the Mediterranean basin and beyond. It included manufacture, trade, and architecture, widespread secular literacy, written law, and an international language of science and literature.” (Ward-Perkins, 2005)

Aside from its fascinating history (perfunctorily depicted above), Lucy loved the idea of living in Pavia. As a province in the Lombardy region with a (smallish) population of around 80,000, Pavia’s size was manageable, and accommodation was cheap.

Pavia is renowned for its large-scale production of rice; in fact, 92% of Italy’s supply is grown in the rice triangle of cities Novara, Vercelli, and Pavia. The flip side becomes apparent in spring when the rice fields are flooded, and mosquitoes make their presence felt 24/7 from June to October. It’s one of the reasons Lucy and the kids escape during the school holidays and head for the coastal village of Chiavari.

 

Interesting, though not a deciding factor in the move, was the town’s penchant for fur coats, which was obvious and very striking when Lucy arrived. She says: “Every ‘grand dame’ would have a fur coat no matter their personal wealth, and the shop ‘Annabella’ is world famous for this. Annabella even provide free taxis from the train station to their shop!”

As Lucy already possessed the prerequisite desire for beautiful coats and a good risotto, she felt she’d be a good fit for Pavia.

Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?

But that’s just the beginning of Lucy’s story.

Ask any Italian about Pavia, and you’ll hear that the town is rather ‘closed’. – Not only is the area recognised for producing excellent rice, it’s also (as an accepted ‘cultural generalisation’) known for its reservedness towards newcomers, sometimes attributed to the numerous invasions of centuries ago.

Settling there with a limited grasp (i.e., almost zero) of the Italian language, meant Lucy had to hand over most of the bureaucratic paperwork to husband Fernando, who was fluent. Fern’s fluency was a phenomenal advantage, but even so, knowing how to speak the lingo didn’t simplify what Lucy calls the Italian ‘documento psyche’ or the importance of carrying documentation to be considered ‘trustworthy’.

“It was crazy,” Lucy says. “It took about a year [to settle], with lots of immigration problems because all of my documents were in English.

Lucy had another baby (Charlie) in 2005. She realised she’d have to get out and make friends or be depressed, so she joined a mothers’ coffee group and sat in the corner hoping no one would talk to her should they expect a reply.

Around the same time, when daughter Gabriela was diagnosed with a vision impairment requiring immediate and ongoing specialist treatment, there came a turning point: “You get to the stage when you just don’t care anymore. I’m going to speak, and it doesn’t matter if it’s wrong.”

That attitudinal shift gave her the confidence to go hard at speaking Italian. As time went by and she became more fluent, she made better friendships – with Italians rather than foreigners like herself.

However, she feels her children have been disadvantaged academically by her language barriers. “I wasn’t able to help my kids as much as I could’ve in New Zealand, couldn’t get involved or help with homework – and this has caused issues. The education system in Italy is tough; it’s very academic, whereas in New Zealand it’s more rounded,” she says.

Even so, the kids – now aged 15, 23, and 24 – are doing OK. And as we fast-forward to 2020, we find that Covid-19 has turned everything upside down anyway.

Pavia has been in lockdown for over a year: “It’s changed how you think, in every way,” Lucy says. “You have to stop and think: ‘are we allowed to do that – or aren’t we?’ We’re not allowed more than two people in the car; if we go somewhere, we have to take two cars. We’re only allowed one visitor, so we’ve become quite antisocial. We just can’t be bothered going out now.

“And the impact Covid has had on students is quite profound. We are comparing the psychological impact to that of living through the war. Everybody knows someone who’s had Covid, and everybody’s lost a loved one from it. The numbers are huge – and tragic.”

Conversely, despite Covid’s outcomes, Lucy’s family is better off financially. They can’t spend, can’t travel, can’t socialise; and with jobs intact, both Lucy and Fernando are predominantly ‘smart working’ from home. For that, they’re thankful and have no regrets about living in a country that’s at an impasse.

Lucy is cautiously supportive of the government which she tells me is, “propping up the economy at the moment. They put in legislation that nobody could be laid off or fired, so everyone’s still receiving wages. But that can’t last. There’ll be some payback and, after time – maybe 12-18 months down the track – hundreds of people will lose their jobs. This on top of Italy’s general state of economic recession which now spans ten years.”

Yet it’s been predominantly during those last ten years that Lucy has created a lifestyle inconceivable in New Zealand. She loves the cheap cost of living, the free healthcare (particularly for Gaby’s specialist needs), and many of her close friends are Italian. It’s this connection with non-English speaking friends that’s made her finally feel at home.

“I’ll never be Italian, but I also feel that when I come home to New Zealand, I’m unsettled. I feel more at home in Italy; and in New Zealand, I feel more foreign. I’m still a Kiwi, will always be a Kiwi. In the America’s Cup, I was supporting Team New Zealand, not Prada. Assimilation is a big word, and it’s a long process, but I’m getting there,” she says.

Landing a job as a teacher and team leader of the Cambridge International Division of Scuola Internazionale di Pavia, a private, relatively young school of five years with 140 kids, was a big part of that transition. The majority of the kids are Italian, and approximately 20% are foreign – children of parents who understand the benefits of bilingual education.

Being bilingual is a dream achieved for Lucy now, too. However, when things were tough in the early years (“like homesick alien movie star, E.T,” she says), she would gladly have phoned home.

“At the beginning, it was difficult,” she confesses. “I am quite a social person, and I found not being able to communicate fluently very isolating. It was also hard accepting that because of that, I had to give up my career.”

In 2003, Fern offered to take the family back to New Zealand, and he asked Lucy to make that decision. They decided to stay put.

“In the end, it has worked out; I had a lot of good, easy years of not working, enjoying long summers from June to August at the beach – something I wouldn’t have been able to do in New Zealand. I’ve also entered a new stage and am working full-time doing something I love,” Lucy says.

And although it’s usually ‘la dolce vita’ in Pavia, Northern Italy, Covid has dictated that travel, entertaining, and eating out are temporarily on hold.

That good sweet life is just a little bit in limbo – for now.

 

 

Sources:

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization

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