At 67, Joyce Faulkner thought she was looking for a holiday. Her husband, Jim, had recently died and exploring possible house swaps on the Home Exchange website felt soothing. In the end, it was not a vacation Faulkner found but a job. She left her home in South Queensferry, just outside Edinburgh, to become mother’s help to seven-year-old twins in the northern Italian town of Varese. Now she is known as “La Babysitter” or simply “La Joyce.”
“Really, when I think of it, it’s halfway crazy,” she says. “I came on the strength of two emails.” A house swap she was interested in didn’t work out, but the owner, Rachele, asked: “‘Do you know anyone who might help me with the children?’ I wrote back and said: ‘Tell me what that involves!’ She wrote me a little list, and I said: ‘I could do that!’ She seemed to trust me and I trusted her.”
Two months later, Faulkner was on her way to Bergamo airport. The area had been at the heart of Italy’s Covid outbreak. When Faulkner arrived in November 2020, the first Italian word she learned was “tamponi” – swabs – as she queued for her Covid test.
When she reached the square in Varese, “the dad, Andrea, was walking towards me with the children hiding behind his legs, kind of shy, thinking: ‘Who is this woman in a long black coat?’ I don’t think it was quite Mary Poppins, but the atmosphere was immediately warm and friendly.”
Eighteen months on, Faulkner’s job no longer feels like a job. “I just feel like part of the family.” They joke: “You think you’re going back to Scotland? No, you’re staying here!” She gives English lessons, helps with the housework, meets the children from school, plays chess or table tennis with them, and takes them to the park. “It never feels like work,” she says. “It has been absolutely the perfect match.”
Faulkner’s son, Steven, who lives in London, has visited her and they have cycled around the northern Italian lakes. She feels no more distant than when she lived in South Queensferry.
Before she made her move, her sister reasonably pointed out: “‘You’re used to living on your own. How are you going to cope?’ I said: ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll make another decision.”
Even the sight of army trucks taking bodies away from the hospital in nearby Bergamo during the early stage of the pandemic didn’t put her off. “You have to take the opportunity when it presents itself.”
Faulkner says she learned this philosophy from Jim. When they met at a teachers’ conference (they both taught English), they had each previously been married.
“I fell in love with Jim the minute I saw him, the minute I spoke to him,” Faulkner says. “But I was a bit hesitant. He said: ‘Supposing we only get six months out of this relationship? That’s six months worth having.’ I thought: ‘What a great attitude to life. Not ‘what a waste of six months’, but six months to value and appreciate. We were together from 1983 to 2019.”
Thirty-six years, then.
“Gosh, as much as that?” she says. “So there you go.”
In a funny way, it was Jim who led Faulkner to Italy, because after he died, “almost by mistake”, she arranged five holidays on Home Exchange. “I accepted people’s invitations, and I was to go to Reykjavik, Krakow, Barcelona, Rome, Paris.” Mostly these were places she had been with Jim. “I think I was planning in my head, without consciously doing it, a kind of farewell tour.” Covid intervened. “It made me stop and take stock,” she says.
Faulkner is not yet ready to leave Italy. “I haven’t started on an exit plan,” she says. “I’ll be 70 next January. That looks like a big number when you write it down, but in my head, I’m 30. You think: ‘Really? Seventy? How can that be? I still feel the same person, I still have the same enthusiasm for life, the same interest in people and things. In that sense, I wish I had another 70.”
July 18, 2022 at 11:44AM Paula Cocozza