I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but in my neck of the woods it’s been freezing cold and rainy this weekend and this weeks Living With Kids interview has me dreaming of warm, summer Tuscan nights.
Meet Katja, who is Swiss, and her husband Sergio, who is Italian. Katja is a writer and she also works with refugee women. Katja and Sergio live with their kids in the Tuscan home Sergio grew up in and it’s as charming as you’d want it to be. Come say hello!
Sergio and I met in our early thirties. I’m Swiss, and after a couple of years abroad, I settled in Tuscany in 1999. Sergio is a born and bred Tuscan and has never lived anywhere else. I was renting a crumbly old house in the countryside and was looking for somebody to build a pergola. When a friend invited me to a party, she said to look out for the attractive builder who couldn’t just do a good job on the house but was also known as a voracious reader. I spent the whole night talking about home improvement to a good-looking Italian, but each time I mentioned a book title his expression went blank. I only found out by the end of the night that there had been more than one builder at the party.
Luckily, I got a second chance and sat next to Sergio during a different event. He took me out for a drink and moved in a month later, his trunk filled up in equal parts with books, pasta and cans of his mom’s homemade tomato sauce.
Our son was born after a year, and two years on our daughter followed. All our friends were surprised as I had never been in a long-term relationship nor had I planned on having family and Sergio had been the proverbial Italian, enjoying his life to the full.
Our kids are 13 and 11 today and Sergio and I are still together, against all the odds, and very happily so. He never built that pergola though.
Our home today is in Cinigiano, a village in the Maremma in southern Tuscany. Sergio’s father was born in the house we live in. It sits in the midst of the rolling hills right next to a beautiful olive grove. I always wanted to produce my own olive oil, but to start with I totally didn’t want to move here. I was worried that living in a village in which half of the inhabitants are close or distant relatives of my partner, could turn into a rather claustrophobic way of life.
However, the battered house I had been renting was romantic for summer night parties but less so for getting through a cold Italian winter with two kids. We house hunted for quite a while, but Tuscany’s renowned beauty and cultural heritage means that it has become near impossible for locals to find an affordable place to rent let alone a house to buy. In the end I had to give in. A month after our move our daughter was born and I quickly wondered what I had been fussing about — having helpful in-laws nearby turned out to be bliss with a new-born and a toddler. And the weekly dose of homemade lasagna didn’t harm either.
The house is divided into two apartments. We live on the top floor which comes with the most amazing view and a balcony. Our apartment is small (the kids share a bedroom, I work from the table in our kitchen), but the olive grove and the panorama views make up for the limited indoor space. I love the fact that we’re in the countryside, but still close enough to the village so that the kids can walk to town.
It’s a modest home — not the Renaissance villa you know from the movies — but my one piece of luxury is an old bath tub that Sergio installed for me on the balcony. Running a hot bath under the stars is the one thing I will madly miss should we ever move away from here.
Of course, Tuscany doesn’t need an introduction. I have seen countless people fall in love with these hills and the medieval villages perched on them. Let alone the wine and food. But living here for good is a different pair of shoes. As I said, house prices have skyrocketed and job options are limited. You have to be ready to improvise. I mostly work as a writer now, but my professional incarnations have stretched from olive picker to wedding planner since I first moved here.
Sergio has always been a construction worker, but Italy’s economic crisis reflects on that sector too. This said, I’m very grateful that we’re able to raise our kids in the Tuscan countryside. I have no idea where they may live one day, but growing up here has provided them with a set of down-to-earth values and a cheeky sense of humor that will support them for the rest of their lives.
I never felt very Swiss and couldn’t wait to move abroad. It was really only by having children that I discovered how attached I am to some of the traditions of my home country. The kids speak Swiss German and visit my family regularly. Sergio totally supports this, but with other topics we’re at a cultural deadlock. He is much more concerned with what the kids eat for lunch or dinner (a yogurt won’t do!), while I insist they should walk or cycle to school as we do in Switzerland. This provides exercise (needed to digest those sumptuous Tuscan meals), fresh air, and cherished time slots without adult supervision (something so rare nowadays).
By now, people have gotten used to seeing our kids walking to school, but to start with some villagers felt so sorry for them that they stopped in the middle of the road to turn around and give them a lift. And, of course, on Saturday mornings when Sergio is at home, he makes a point of driving them.
Tourists are always surprised when I tell them about Tuscany’s refugee homes. It’s hard to bring this harsh reality together with the golden hills and beautiful lifestyle most people remember from reading or watching Under the Tuscan Sun.
The shelter I worked at had originally been a women’s refuge. From summer 2014, we started to receive not just women and children who had to leave their homes because of domestic violence but also refugees who were being transferred to our shelter after arrival in Sicily. The situation in the Mediterranean had been in the news for years and I was relieved that I could do something. I met some incredibly brave women who had risked their lives trying to get their children safely to Europe. It was a humbling experience. And a surprising and challenging one too.
Supporting a Syrian mother who had escaped the war with her children was an entirely different situation from working with young Nigerian women in Italy who report running from Boko Haram but who are often known to be human trafficking victims. I decided to take out time to write a book about my job at the refuge to reflect on all of this. Across the Big Blue Sea was published last February. The book tells some of the incredible, encouraging and heartbreaking stories of the refugees and migrants I met and reflects on my personal experience in all of this. What I learned, what I struggled with (or still do) and what took me by surprise.
The situation in the Mediterranean may seem like a European or even just an Italian issue. But, it isn’t, especially not in the long run. Whether to escape wars and natural disasters or to find better opportunities, people have always moved. And without the human urge and capacity to leave a life behind to build a better one somewhere else, nations like the USA and Canada wouldn’t even exist.
In our picture-perfect Tuscan hilltop town, the village school only manages to stay open because of all the children of foreigners who moved here. My kids are among them just as much as the children of families who have arrived from Morocco, Turkey or Sri Lanka. We are not religious, but our freethinking kids happily share their school benches with Catholics and Muslims and they all get along. Or rather they get along, fight and discuss and then get along again just as the kids in any family or school.
Migration is a complex issue and there will never be a one size fits all approach. But it would be so much more clever to invest the resources spent on erecting fences and walls to figure out why kids from the most diverse backgrounds can get along in a small village school while adults can’t.
A lot of pieces in our house are hand-me-downs or things we picked up standing on a roadside. But I love buying fabrics for their texture and colors and the stories they tell about the people and cultures who created them.
My mother always insists on quality Swiss bed linen. A surefire sign that I reached middle age is that I finally understand why. I have pillow cases from Fischbacher which are still as soft as when my mom must have bought them 30 years ago. In Tuscany, a favorite is Un Macello, an artisan store run by a friend of mine who hand-prints natural fabrics and antique Italian linen. Her tablecloths and textiles can be found all over our house and have become a favorite Tuscan souvenir when I visit people abroad.
The work at our refugee home has led me to discover African block wax prints (they cover our sofa and make for beautiful tablecloths). The first time I ordered a few yards, the colorful textiles arrived in a parcel from Georgia in the US. I had hoped to create a project with refugees to import wax prints to Italy. It didn’t work out (why is explained in the book), but these amazing fabrics left an indelible impression on the book cover of Across the Big Blue Sea. My book designer, Michelle Grant, combined the vibrant colors and recurring patterns of my favorite African wax prints with the symbols of Tuscany (cypress trees, winding roads and hilltop towns) to create a blueprint of the lively and open-minded world I’d like to live in.
Tuscans shout a lot and it’s a habit I definitely picked up since living here. It’s liberating at times (especially if you come from a rather restrained country like Switzerland) but unnecessary on many other occasions. Of course, my kids will remember every detail of those boring shouting fits but I hope they’ll also remember some of the moments when we have successfully managed to avoid them (thank goodness for that relaxing outdoor tub!).
The baby years will always have a special place in my heart. I think I hardly ever felt so at ease with my life, so content just to sit and marvel at the miracle of these two small creatures. That doesn’t mean that I would want to go back. I far too much enjoy sleeping through the night. And it’s far too exciting to see the sudden transformation taking place which is turning our kids into proper teenagers: it’s like opening up the window on a hot day and getting a refreshing breeze of air (and probably a bit of turbulence to go with it).
I wish someone had told me that raising children prepares you for many other challenges in life. I encountered quite a handful of them at the refugee home and when the going got tough I often wondered whether I was qualified enough / the right person for the job. It took a while until I realized that I couldn’t be everything in one person — trauma counsellor, cook, best friend and immigration lawyer — but that I knew how to find the right people or resources. And if they weren’t available I had to improvise. What teaches you improvisation better than raising a child?
The challenges of family life — putting out burning fires, dealing with disappointment, failure and wrong expectations, getting in help when needed — develops the set of skills people need to run a country. I think mothers often forget that raising children provides a life experience that is worth more than many a diploma. All we need is somebody to point it out and we’re ready to go out and rule the world!
Thank you, Katja! Your home is so gorgeous and makes me want to run away to Tuscany. Or at least come visit. I’m positively swooning over those views. What an amazing way to wake up every morning.
I also keep going back to this: “But it would be so much more clever to invest the resources spent on erecting fences and walls to figure out why kids from the most diverse backgrounds can get along in a small village school while adults can’t?” Such a really smart, inclusive way to look at things.
How about you, Dear Readers? Do you talk to your kids about diversity? Do you live in a place where you’re surrounded by diversity and it’s part of daily life? Or do you have to actively seek it out? Have you been able to meet or assist immigrants in your community?
You can follow Katja on Instagram, If you want more information on Katja’s work with refugees, visit her book page or find the book on Amazon. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.