The latest in our Guest Renovator series. Today we’re joined by author Jill Pennington who shares the renovation of her home in Reggio Emilia.
A wicked sense of humor and strength of spirit are what drew me to the story of author Jill Pennington. Certainly not your usual tale of expat life in Italy, she tells it like it is with gritty realism.
In 2004 Jill, her husband and young family sign for a property in Italy.
“One house just about habitable… for wildlife, and one derelict, plus four fields and lots of trees. I’d never owned a tree before or a field.”
Along with her three young children Jill Pennington sets about transforming the place while her husband commutes between England and Italy. Soon after she discovers he has been having an affair, that he won’t be joining her in Italy, and she must pick up the pieces and create a new life for her family.
Jill’s story resonated with me so strongly as my own mum went through something similar. My Dad died aged only 39 and left Mum with three young children to raise, a mortgage to pay, and work to find to support the family. I grew up knowing that my Mum could do anything, and so could I.
What I love about this story is that Jill didn’t just pack it in and return to England. She stayed and carved out (often literally) a place for her family in the Italian countryside. From working tractors, to chainsaws, digging a well and finding ways to make do, all with a sense of humor. She didn’t give up.
As a mum who has renovated with young children in Italy I have immense admiration for someone who gets stuck in and gets dirty.
“The people from my village kept asking me what I was doing?
This wasn’t normal behavior for a female – where was my apron and rolling pin?
AND where was my husband?
With little money to spare Jill Pennington had no intention of being a glorified “coffee girl” for the builders. With a few bad experiences she took on managing the project herself much to the bemusement of the locals. Together with the workers she removed all the roof tiles, put in a new chimney then lined the roof with waterproof sheeting, before replacing the tiles.
“The house appeared to have been built by the three little pigs, there was straw, newspaper, pasta, all sorts of materials went into this build.
Pulling it down was a doddle, it just came apart in my hands.
Every day I would work on it although without machinery or proper tools progress was slow.”
Three cats, two dogs, ten ducks, nine chickens, two geese, two donkeys and a goat later the story continues. She now runs a small farm. The children are teenagers and although parts of the renovation are yet to be completed this family know that they are capable of anything, that they can live on a shoestring, and that creating a life you love is in the end the only thing that matters.
Where do you get your sense of humor?
That’s easy – my mum, she had the ability to make any event funny without trying. I remember when I announced my first pregnancy and she turned up at my house with a babygrow. She said ‘It doesn’t matter what you have because this babygrow is bisexual’
I could probably write a book full of silly sayings/quotes that she entertained us with. My daughter seems to have inherited the gene as well, she and I are so in tune with each other we spend most of our time together giggling.
Renovating a home is a huge challenge. How have you survived the process? What did you learn from the process?
I have renovated a few houses, my own and other peoples. I really enjoy the work and am constantly learning new skills. The first time I did it we lived on site with three children under 8 years old, so that was the hardest one.
Why was living in Italy a dream for you? What was it about Italy that had you stay?
I visited only once and I was hooked, I was initially drawn by the climate and the better quality of life to bring up my children. It is very different to UK life. I knew as soon as I arrived that it was right for me and my children.
What do your kids love most about living in Italy?
They have enjoyed the outdoor life, freedom to roam and the socializing.
In Italy people don’t use babysitters as they would in the UK, if you go out you take your kids with you and they learn to interact with others of all ages.
They are encouraged to make meals a social event and this helps them to develop confidence and conversational skills instead of turning into the grunting teenagers who only have computer games for company.
What advice would you give to others contemplating a “country / renovation change”?
Make sure if you are doing it with a partner/spouse that you both want the same thing, make sure you have more money than you think you need or some way of earning it because it will always cost a lot more than you expect.
What are your tips for living a simpler life, and how does living in Italy reflect that?
Appreciate what you have and if you don’t need it don’t buy it. I have lived in Italy for eight years, they have been the happiest years of my life but also the poorest.
I have learned to forage for food and make meals with what you find. Money is overrated.
Tell us about the process of writing a book, how long did it take, what was the inspiration/motivation. Are you planning a sequel?
My book ‘The diary of a single parent abroad’ is my story about moving to Italy, then my marriage breaking down and how the kids and I coped. It took 6 years to complete and I now need to write another but hopefully it will be a quicker process for the sequel.
Jill’s Website The Diary of – a single parent abroad.
Jill’s book The diary of a single parent abroad, is available through amazon
Jill Pennington is also on Facebook
Images from the private collection of Jill Pennington
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