05 Jan Rural Life and Renovation
We live near Gubbio. My husband and I moved here 12 years ago after deciding to give up our sensible jobs and pursue our dream of renovating an old property and starting up our own Umbrian villa rental – so we could share with other people what we loved best about Umbria. We chose Umbria because 14 years ago when we were house hunting, it was affordable and we loved the fact that it was undeveloped and untouched. Also we were attracted by the fact there weren’t any other foreigners living in the area we were looking to move to – we didnt want to move to an ex-pat enclave in another country. We live on a hill top surrounded by beautiful countryside and stunning views. It is isolated, but only a short walk or 5 minute drive to the 2 villages that are on either side of us. We live in a typical rural Umbrian farming community – the way of life is very traditional and people do not have a lot of material wealth – family and food is important to them.
We are both British – but I was born in Belgium and have lived abroad for much of my life. Our 3 children were all born here. My first experience of having a baby in Italy was horrific! I did a fairly basic antenatal course (one of the first ever offered in our local town). It seemed rather outdated compared to the information provided in the books I was reading from the UK – but I was fairly happy that there was the possibility of having a natural birth with as little intervention as possible. But I don’t think anything went to plan at all. Gubbio had a new hospital – just opened a few weeks before I had Ben so we had high hopes. They promised new techniques and a high standard of care for mothers and babies.
What actually happened: I was rushed in to hospital a week before Ben was due with a liver problem and had to have an emergency induction. Nothing was explained to me properly and I had no idea what being induced would mean. The staff seemed to think that patients weren’t entitled to ask about the procedures that they were going to have. I ended up having a 30 hour labour with very painful, very intense contractions every 1 to 2 minutes for over 15 hours. In Gubbio no pain relief was offered then for a natural delivery. I was so exhausted by the end of the labour I was begging the doctors to give me a cesarean – it was a horrendous experience. When I finally got to the last stage of labour and wanted to push we couldn’t find a nurse or doctor. We were in a bedroom on our own and both very frightened – it had been a very hot day and they had 5 births at once so everyone was completely overwhelmed as there were only 2 delivery suites. I wasn’t allowed to stand up pushing – or do any of the natural birthing techniques I had practiced – this really threw me – I felt totally alienated and that everything was out of my control.
I was made to give birth to Ben lying flat on a bed with feet in stirrups. The midwife was awful and even stormed out a one point because my husband asked her to stop poking me about. I pushed for well over half an hour and ended up having a major episiotomy, a severely bruised coccyx (that took over 6 months before I could sit down without pain) and I also injured my back. Luckily Benjamin was born healthy – jaundiced and suffering a bit – but basically healthy.
There were however some positives: I had a 5 night stay in hospital after the birth – which was great, as it gave me time to recover and get on my feet before going home. The support of the nursing staff was also great, help with breast feeding and the general level of care was also good. We did make a formal complaint to the hospital regarding the experience we had – but nothing every came of it – they didn’t even apologies for the way we had been treated.
After this experience, I was very reluctant to give birth in Italy again. After speaking with other mothers I found my experience was not isolated. In this part of Italy there still isn’t much experience of natural birthing techniques – the focus is still very much on the baby and not on the mother. It is quite an outdated approach to child birth. I understand pain relief is only offered in 2 of the largest hospitals in Umbria. Many doctors still expect you to give birth lying on your back on a bed.
With Lucy, my second – I debated the idea of giving birth in the UK – but decided that it was not fair on Ben to leave him. This time my experience of the same hospital couldn’t have been more different. From the start I was very outspoken with the staff. I told them what I ideally wanted to happen and said categorically I was not going to give birth laying on a bed in stirrups unless there was an emergency situation and the baby was in danger! I found that the staff were responsive to my requests and were this time much more willing to accommodate a more natural labour.
Since the first experience it seemed the staff had been trained on lots of alternative birthing techniques (balls, baths, massage – relaxing music were all now available). I had an almost pain free natural water birth. I felt in control and able to cope – the staff were supportive but not overbearing. Again there was no pain relief offered – but this time it didn’t matter.
With William my third, I went to the same hospital again – he was a very large baby (4kg) and had to be induced as he was 2 weeks late. I had a 12 hour labour – which was very painful – but I felt able to cope this time as I knew what to expect. The staff were very good – when the pain got overwhelming, I was offered the water bath – which helped and the midwife was very supportive and calm. The care given to me, the mother, was completely different during this birth. There was support and I was closely monitored. I had William in water after 12 hours without any intervention. I felt calm and in control the whole time – aided by a doctor and very experienced midwife who trained in Perugia. What a difference to the first experience!
My husband and I run a family friendly villa rental. We have 9 villas and apartments that sleep up to 30 people – there is a pool, home cooked food, a restaurant and we offer facilities and equipment for families with young children. We understand the needs of families on holiday and have hopefully created the ideal environment for the whole family to relax and enjoy their holiday in our little slice of Umbrian paradise!
We bought a listed 17th century farmstead and renovated it completely. We found the process very complicated, drawn out, expensive and stressful. We learned a lot from our first renovation project. Initially we converted the 400 year old farmhouse and the old cattle barn into 7 apartments. Years later, having established our rental business, we decided to undertake the renovation of the remaining dilapidated farm buildings. We finally completed our project over the winter of 2015 when the final 2 outbuildings (an old hay barn and a pig sty) were converted into luxury modern apartments.
This time things were dramatically different. With the experience of the other builds, we knew exactly what we wanted and how to go about achieving it. Firstly, we employed a very competent local building firm. As they are part of our local community and as reputation is everything here there is a strong sense of responsibility to get things done properly. Local builders can’t afford to have unhappy customers who live next door! Secondly, we employed an excellent young local Geometra (project supervisor/architect) whom we trusted and whom had a great relationship with the local planning office and council which made all the difference. And thirdly, I took time off to project manage the whole build and was on site every day – at least 4 times a day. I insisted on seeing every major stage of the build and also had daily briefings with the head builder. I informed myself about every aspect of the build – so that I could ask questions and check at every stage that we were on time, on budget and everything was going to plan. I also now speak decent Italian – so was able to communicate with every contractor. The builders were great as well – all credit to them – we built an eco-build with 2 modern apartments, one completely glass fronted and immersed in the countryside, a massage suite and a store room in less than 6 months, on time, under budget and the end result is stunning. The 2 new apartments are already our most sought after properties.
Our family are semi-integrated in village life. At the end of the day we are very different to the rest of the people that live in our little farming village. We get on well with people and have friends, employ our staff locally and our children go to school locally but after nearly 12 years of living here, we realise that we don’t actually want to live like the locals – as we just are too different and come from such a different place. The things that are important to us are different – for example education is very important to us for our children but is low priority for may other parents in the village. We would like the standard of education to be broader on the whole and do feel that the children miss out in some areas – however it is nothing that can’t be done at home. We are happy to be different and dip in and out of village life when it suits us.
I started teaching English 3 years ago at the local primary school. I volunteer my time and teach all 5 years of primary school from age 6 up to age 11/12. Having never taught before, the first few lessons were a massive learning experience for me. But after a bit of trial and error, I worked out what works and what doesn’t and I now teach three 1 hour conversational English lessons a week from October to April when the rental business is quieter. I always walk out of class with a smile on my face. I offered to teach, as it was something that I could give back to the community. I also though it may help integrate us a bit more into village life – which it has to a certain extent.
The advantages of living here are that our children can have a very family centred upbringing in a lovely natural place where there is lots of fresh air and green grass to play on. We work from home – so all eat lunch together as a family everyday. We work together and involve the children in our daily tasks where possible. They also have access to a lovely life we would not have had in the UK – a swimming pool, animals, an outdoor life, sunny climate, fresh home grown food. But in the winter when the villa rental is closed we do feel very isolated at times. Our children are bilingual. We speak English to them but they speak Italian outside the home. You cannot really live in this area of Umbria without speaking Italian. We never forget how lucky we are to be able to live in such a beautiful place. We enjoy working with people and love how happy people are when their holiday experience meets their expectations.