- Inside 10
Casa Mia: Scarlett Conlon Writes About Her Big Italian Renovation
I first realised I had a new place to call home when friends started asking me if I was “going home” for Christmas. It was December 2019 and, two months earlier, I had left my job as a fashion editor in London to move to the little-known Alto Vastese mountains in Abruzzo, Italy, and go freelance.
By home, my friends meant London, where I had lived my entire life until that point. It was an innocuous question on their part, but for me it prompted a realisation: yes, I thought, I will be home, here in Italy. (Also, what fool would pass up the chance to legit consume one’s body weight in panettone and prosecco in the name of culture?)
A little background to put things into context, as I hadn’t emigrated on a whim with a suitcase. For three and a half years prior to the move, my husband and I had travelled back and forth every month between London – where we couldn’t afford to buy a property and do it up – and Italy, where we could, maintaining full-time jobs in the UK to fund the mammoth restoration project we were remotely managing. It was arduous at times, but also enlightening in a way neither of us had expected.
We had found a small village with a population of 2,000, many of whom were aged north of 70. I would have understood if they had been wary of us (people don’t seem to get why we swapped London for a place like this, but that’s another story), however we found the contrary. The Abruzzese people are famous for being gentile and forte (kind and strong), but even by those standards we were blown away.
I’m talking about cups of coffee and slices of wedding-anniversary cake being brought to the door when we were working in bitter temperatures before we got the heating sorted; bunches of puntarelle and boxes of figs grown in their gardens left on our doorstep in the summer; wine on the house when we’d rock up to the bar just to use its loo before we had one; and endless invitations for un caffè every chance they got. For our part, we would deliver warm Irish soda bread with notes of gratitude (when we finally got an oven), which, it has to be said, went down a storm.
By the time December 2019 swung around, we were being driven to choir concerts in the back of old white Fiats and dancing around restaurant tables to Domenico Modugno’s Volare. I also found myself cooking up a five-course Italian menu for our builder and six of his mates (for the record, there’s nothing more daunting in the kitchen than making pasta for Italians, but it’s a bloody good way to learn how to get it right).
We hadn’t just bought a house and filled it with lovely stuff (although we took a lot of joy in that). We had immersed ourselves in every iota of Italian life and, thanks to being embraced by this community of people, we felt a new sense of belonging. We felt, as I realised when questioned, at home.
It hadn’t always been my plan. If you’d asked me 15 years ago, when I was 20, where “home” was, I’d have said, “London! Forever!” in a heartbeat. The thought of leaving it filled me with irrational dread of getting old and sensible; the idea of one day living in the country instigated an attack of claustrophobia that I couldn’t really explain.
I was a London girl who told people I lived in Brent Cross when I was three; could recite the Victoria line backwards by the time I was six; gave directions to tourists in the West End aged 10; ran the Mini London Marathon when I was 12; worked in the Wyndham theatre’s box office when I was 16; and had my own stall selling vintage clothes and accessories at Portobello when I was 21. London was my epicentre and the only home I had ever known. On the family front, my mum and grandma – the women who raised me and from whom I was inseparable – were there, and the idea of not being in close contact with them was non-negotiable. On the social front, I craved its buzz – God, I even abandoned my first attempt at a countryside university campus up north after three months because I missed the energy of London so much (it sounds mad but I genuinely applied on a whim after being convinced by pals over pints one night in Camden). My identity was wrapped up in my hometown and I didn’t know who I was somewhere else.
Pursuing a career in fashion journalism only heightened the feeling that London was where I had to be. From interning and networking, to my subsequent jobs at Net-a-Porter, Vogue and The Guardian, work revolved around the capital’s media groups, fashion maisons and fomo social scene. But as with everything else, age and experience brought perspective.
When I started to travel in my late teens and twenties, my eyes were opened to the opportunity that spending time in different places afforded and the fresh perspective it brings. I fell in love with an Irishman who had travelled the world before landing in London, and I watched as friends started relocating to Toronto, Tokyo, Berlin, Amsterdam and Melbourne. They spoke of learning new languages and discovering new cultures; they said they felt like they were always learning. It was inspiring.
As I approached my thirties, I had got to know myself a lot better. I wanted to push myself more and had stopped feeling like my sense of self in the world was defined by my postcode, or for that matter, my place of work. Holidays weren’t enough, I wanted a more 360-degree experience and, before I knew it, the idea of calling somewhere else home one day didn’t feel weird. At the same time I realised I didn’t need London to be my safety net any more – I twigged that relocating didn’t make me less of a Londoner. Basically, I calmed the fuck down. After that, it wasn’t long before we wound up in Abruzzo and put a deposit down on our place.
There’s nothing quite like pouring all your thought, time and money into a project like ours, especially when all of it is in short supply and you don’t always know where any of it is actually going to come from. We’d become the owners of a 300-year-old house that hadn’t been lived in for 50 years, and every inch needed love and attention.
It’s fair to say we flew by the seat of our pants from 2016 to 2019, but kept pushing until it was finished. Frequently, we’d arrive on a Friday evening after work, graft through to Monday afternoon (those loo trips to the bar always a highlight), land at Stansted at 2.30am on Tuesday and be at work for 8.30 on the dot. What kept us going? A very visceral sense of making a home together. I honestly can’t remember feeling tired from any of it, only exhilarated.
The more I came back, the more I felt like I was learning something new. For example, everything happens in the morning and everything takes a long time, so being an early riser is a must if you want to get anything done (I was not one, but now I am, kind of). Refusing un caffè from a neighbour – even if it is the sixth cup of the day – is kind of rude, so best to knock it back and deal with the shakes on your own time; collecting fridge magnets is a national pastime and loads of fun; birthday lunches are regularly 12-course affairs and you do not leave until you’ve finished your digestifs, so don’t go when you’re only in town for two days and have a kitchen to fit; and always, always, expect the unexpected on a roundabout.
In spring 2019, we started to put the wheels in motion and make our holiday home our home-home. We fixed an autumn move date and when I told my mum the plan she promised me I was making her and my grandma proud. She also promptly got to grips with FaceTime.
Eighteen months down the line, I’ve found that moving here has taught me a few more seminal lessons about home than coffee and fridge magnets. If home is somewhere you are supposed to thrive, you rarely get a fresh perspective by staying put. Home can be both a physical space and psychological state, a melting pot of the tangible and the intangible, Home is the community of people you build around you (ones that, if you’re lucky, let you use their loo and bring you coffee and cake). And home is, probably most importantly, where you make it.
On that note, I don’t think it stops here. Loosening up allowed me to discover a more adventurous side of myself (it’s #AMood) and I would never rule out moving somewhere else. For now, though, I’m a happy Londoner who is lucky enough to have found a home away from home.
Photography by Scarlett Conlon. Taken from Issue 66 of 10 Magazine – MY, HAPPY, PLACE – is out NOW. Order your copy here.