This instalment of the Blog of Guy is coming to you from beautiful Italy, a land where historical artefacts of astonishing antiquity are just left lying around! I shit you not, this is a place where the new buildings are anything less than 500 years old. And people seem to live and work in buildings that you would imagine American museums would be falling over themselves to disassemble stone by stone, and reconstruct inside a hermetically-controlled special exhibition space. It’s unreal. Ever since University days (in Edinburgh, with lots of old buildings everywhere), I have been involved in antiques restoration in one form or another; first restoring furniture, then restoring European swordsmanship. And now everywhere I look there are antiques: in stone, wood, iron and paint, many of them crying out for some tender loving care, all of them quietly glowing with the residue of the love their makers put into them centuries ago.
As no doubt you know, I do a lot of researching and recreating of Italian medieval and renaissance swordsmanship styles. Especially those of Fiore dei Liberi, Philippo Vadi, and Ridolfo Capoferro. So you would be forgiven for thinking that this move to Italy was all part of a deliberate plan to improve my grasp on Italian, further my research interests, and so on. But it didn’t happen that way.
In the beginning, there was plumbing. Now, let it be said that Finnish plumbing is a miracle to behold. They do central heating better than the Romans (and that is really saying something!). But one side-effect of this is that they seem to do a lot of plumbing. To whit, every 50 years or so, they rip it all out and do it again, in a process known to all as the putkiremontti. Fear it. Dread it. It is not for the faint-hearted. This means that the average dwelling is uninhabitable for a period of perhaps 3-6 months, at a cost of about 7-900euros per square metre of floor (which is how the costs are divided among the building owners). Our apartment’s turn came this year, and we got our exact dates about 6 months ago; January 12th to May 13th. Given the vast cost of the work (hello, remortgage), we immediately set about finding ways to make this affordable. The average cost of a furnished flat for 4 months in Helsinki was about 1800e per month. This is simply not within our reach, especially when the usual mortgage, service charges, and so on, are going out as before. So what to do?
Go somewhere cheaper was the obvious option. We looked at Cyprus (cheap, not great to get to though), Bali (cheap, once you get there, but very expensive flights especially at this time of year), and various other possible locations, when my oh-so-excellent wife found us an apartment here in Lucca, Italy, at a silly-cheap off-season price. I hadn’t thought we could afford Italy, of all places on the planet, but we got very lucky…
And Lucca, for a medievalist like me, is just perfection. We are inside the walls of the old town, and these are serious, keep those fucking Pisans out, walls. Round every corner there is some staggering work of art, of staggering antiquity, and just strolling around (which I am doing a lot of, as I made the very sensible decision to treat this as a proper sabbatical, and do no work that I don’t feel like, blog posts, writing and most definitely teaching included) is like being in a great architectural museum. This is helped along by the fact that a) that’s how the Lucchese have chosen to maintain their city, bless them, and b) neither the Allies nor the Axis bombed the shit out of it in WWII.
It’s also incredibly cheap, to eat, to live, to get around. We went to Pisa last Sunday, birthplace of Vadi; it cost about 20e for the four of us (my wife, two kids, and me) to go there and back on the train. We saw the tower. It leans. A lot.
We saw the medieval old town, and the Duomo, and the Battistero, and all sorts. Getting the kids excited about going into the Duomo was easier than I expected; I told them there was a real dead body in it, and they were super-keen to see it! San Ranieri to the rescue…
I was in Florence this week, which will get a blog post all of its own. There and back for 15 euros. And the trains run on time, with no help from il Duce. And here’s the kicker; when we take into account the costs of renting, of food and wine (dear god, drinkable wine at under 4e for a 1.5 litre bottle! I’ll be perfectly round, and a complete alcoholic, by the time we come home), and our flights here, it works out that we are saving about 2000 euros on our living costs over the three months we are here. (We are coming home 6 weeks before the putkiremontti ends so that our eldest daughter can get back to school for a month or so before the summer break.)
And what of income? I have been self-employed now for fifteen years, and never really let go of business, which has never been more than two weeks from bankruptcy. (Really. I hear that it’s a good idea to have about 6 months operating expenses in reserve. I have never, ever, had more than a fortnight’s, until this last year). My wife has been telling me for ages that she’s worried about me getting exhausted, just as my friends were telling me a decade ago. I need and deserve no sympathy; I have the best job in the world. But it is still a job, and lately, it has been starting to feel like one. I have been teaching way too much, and not unwinding properly. It’s a curse and a blessing that there are so few people out there with my specific skill set. So taking a three month break from teaching felt at every level like a really good idea, confirmed by the way I spent almost all of December floored by a cold turned into bronchitis.
But if I am not at the salle teaching, nor doing weekend seminars (and I have deliberately not looked for teaching opportunities here) where’s the money coming from? Well, for starters, the biggest monthly cost is the salle, which the SHMS pays for separately from my teaching time. So that’s covered. The actual teaching of classes is covered by my excellent senior students; I have been thinking for a while now that my constant presence can act as a cap on their development, so I’ll be interested to see how they are getting on when I get back. And in the meantime, a huge hat-tip and thank you to the ladies and gentlemen who have stepped into the breach and are running things in Helsinki while I’m away.
But salary? Aha, my friends, that’s the secret. The books that I have self-published over the last couple of years (re-issues of The Swordsman’s Companion and The Duellist’s Companion, Veni Vadi Vici, plus the all-new The Medieval Longsword) are bringing in enough royalties that we can actually get by for a few months without any teaching gigs. I cannot tell you what a relief that is. It’s incredible, to be able to take some real time off and not go bankrupt. And that’s down to every one of you that has bought one of my books in any format over the last year. Thank you. You may just have saved my life. And you have certainly allowed me to convert what would have been an impossibly hard problem into a glorious opportunity.