Lake Como is rightly renowned for its beauty but it is also well known internationally (albeit within a specialised community) for a service operating on the lake itself. For it hosts the only seaplane pilot training school in Europe at the Como Aero Club on the lakefront. This is the oldest flying club in the world and the only European location where you can train to get a seaplane PPL (Private Pilot’s License) or to extend a standard PPL also to cover seaplanes. In addition, it is the most southerly point in Europe offering a seaplane service with tours of the lakes as well as trips by arrangement to destinations in northern Italy.
Residents here are well used to the small seaplanes swooping over the old town to land on the lake beyond the football stadium and alongside the Yacht Club. Within the local English-speaking community there is also someone with intimate knowledge of the club since she herself trained there successfully to gain her PPL. She is Ciara O’Toole, originally from Dublin but now primarily based at Molina, a gem of a medieval village perched above the lake on the road from Como to Bellagio.
Ciara has written a fascinating account of her experience in qualifying as a seaplane pilot from the moment she first walked into their hangar at the end of Via Masia thinking it was the offices of ACI (Italian Automobile Club) to when she finally perfected the art of landing safely on water. The book entitled ‘Going Solo on Lake Como’ is available on Amazon in all formats. I can wholeheartedly recommend it not just for Ciara’s account of how she earned her PPL (a sufficient achievement in itself) but also for her insights into the challenges of settling abroad. I particularly liked her many brief vignettes of local characters. (Let me just say that I have a pet hate of books like Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’ with their contrived quaintness and their poorly-disguised money motivation – Ciara’s book is nothing like this – hers instead is real life with real emotion!)
So I was excited when Ciara agreed to answer some questions I wanted to put to her having read her book. The book does describe some difficult personal experiences once she had made the move to Como and Ciara, with her accustomed honesty, replied to my equally personal questioning! As I looked back over the interview I realised that we had started off discussing the Aero Club and the practicalities of learning to fly but inexorably the scope of the discussion moved to more fundamental matters of moving home and setting up in a foreign land.
CC: What advice would you give to anyone wishing to learn to fly at Como? Do you need to be able to speak Italian? Is it important to be able to speak Italian?
C O’T: I would say just pick up the phone or drop them an e mail and do a trial flight – it’s the best way to know if it’s for you. All the instructors in the club speak English so it’s not necessary to speak Italian. Each year dozens of certified pilots from throughout the world come to Como to do their seaplane rating and do so in English.
CC: Did you face much bureaucracy either in getting your PPL or when buying your house here or managing your career? If you did face issues, how did you deal with them?
C O’T: No. Some, of course, but not what I would have anticipated. The paperwork for a PPL is very precise. I think the key with anything related to bureaucracy in Italy is to do your homework and talk to people who’ve been through similar experiences, then if you largely know what to expect, it becomes a less frustrating experience. For instance in my experience it was trickier to buy a car than a house, but people had warned me, so it wasn’t a surprise.
CC: When your marriage broke down when you had recently moved to Molina, you must have been feeling at your most isolated (both physically and mentally). What caused you to stay on at Molina?
C O’T: Many things, and yet I never sat down and thought it through. But a part of it was the fact that I’d already been through upheaval to get to Italy, then when my relationship broke down I felt even more like staying because I thought ‘Why would I go back now?’ Also I had slowly started making friends and people reached out to me a little in small kind ways and that gave me more courage and confidence to stay. I didn’t feel like I would be alone for long, and I wasn’t.
(Ciara is primarily a marketing expert and her main career activity is as a marketing consultant however she has managed to combine this with writing, flying, some inspirational speaking and charity work as well as other entrepreneurial activities. I had heard of these so-called ‘portfolio’ careers but had never really met anyone who had achieved one so I was intrigued to know more about how Ciara concurrently developed and sustained such a variety of interests.)
C O’T: I was asked to do an interview in Ireland once for a magazine and the title was ‘Renaissance Women’, specifically about the growth of people and women in particular who carved out ‘portfolio careers’. I don’t think I ever really set out to have a career like this, my curiosity just led me down paths that intrigued me and I followed. The one constant is my marketing – I always say that’s my bread and butter. I did Commerce in University and a Masters in Marketing and have always worked, whether as an employee, consultant or contractor, for companies like L’Oreal, Red Bull, Guinness, the National Lottery. Things like writing and flying, moving to Italy and setting up a furniture business were passions that bloomed along the way.
CC: Have you still got any burning ambitions either for your career or personal life?
C O’T: I’ve just finished a second book which I hope to publish in the next couple of years. I would also like to train to be a flight instructor. Since I obtained my land and sea licence I haven’t flown as much as I’d like for various reasons and so I’ve set myself the challenge of being a certified flight instructor, more to sharpen my own skills for myself, than with the real goal of being an instructor. I’d also like to continue to travel; I’ve travelled extensively around the world and keep adding to my list. But more than anything, I think I’ve recently learned to enjoy simplicity and this feels like one of my biggest achievements so far.
CC: You seem to have created two epicentres to your life, Dublin and Como – what are the main similarities and contrasts between these two? Do you find it easy to focus on Italian-based activities when physically absent? How do you ensure that ‘out of sight’ is not ‘out of mind’?
C O’T: I have managed to move quite fluidly between the two over the past ten years and sometimes when I’ve just headed back to one or the other I have amazed myself at the ease with which I make the transition; different sides of the road, different language, different people, friends, everything. They are so different yet so similar. I think the big thing they have in common is the people, I think Italians are quite like the Irish at heart and I think we have a very similar sense of humour. Our food and weather not so much but the people yes. When I’m in Ireland I listen to Italian radio, frequently in Como I’ll listen to Irish radio. I have amazing friends and networks on both sides of the water so I’m lucky that I very much feel like I belong in both places and I call both places home. I continually invest time in my friendships in both places and so I never feel that out of sight is out of mind.
CC: My favourite all-time film is ‘Cinema Paradiso’ where the Philippe Noiret character (the cinema’s projectionist) urges his young friend to spread his wings, uproot his ties to his much-loved town of birth, and seek his fortune in the big wide world. Yet by realising this dream the young protagonist loses his links to his roots, to his young love and to the world in which his character was formed – this conflict over which path to take must be within many (if not all) expats’ experience. What in your opinion makes for a successful expat? What made you want to integrate here? What helped you integrate? Did you manage to maintain bonds with your town and country of birth? Have you lost out in any way by not being grounded in one specific place and culture.
C O’T: I think you first of all need to be open. You need to have a bit of ‘go with the flow’ about it all; you can’t expect to shoehorn your old life into your new one. I wanted to integrate because I love Italy, I love everything about it; the people, the food, the landscape, the wine, the attitude to family. I love the simplicity in many ways of where I live in Como. It’s all about family, food and it’s all very simple and uncomplicated really. I of course helped myself by being open but also people were very welcoming to me and very accepting of me.
I feel like my 100% self in Como. I even joke sometimes that I have no filters when speaking Italian partly because it’s hard to over complicate things when you don’t have 100% mastery of the language! I don’t think I’ve lost out in any way by not being grounded in one specific place although sometimes I do think that I would like to be more stable in one place or the other and have decided that it will be Como. Ten years is a long time to be flitting and now I think I’m going to make Como my full time base. That’s the plan anyway. I have one hundred percent bonds with Ireland. For example I’m back here at the moment working on a contract and it’s like I never left. I go to work, I meet friends, see my family.
(One aspect of Ciara’s book that I much admired was the way she includes brief vignettes of those whose story or circumstances matched her mood or theme yet without ever labouring the connection. One such vignette was of Lola, her neighbour in Molina, who harboured a dream to move down to Tuscany to set up her own business. Lola never acted upon her dream.)
CC: Should we always thrive to achieve our dreams? What did you advise Lola to do? What might she have lost by moving to Tuscany?
C O’T: I think we should always strive to achieve our dreams. Why wouldn’t we? It is absolutely better to have tried and failed than never to have tried. If I try something and it doesn’t work out, as long as I know for sure that I gave it my very best shot, then I sleep well at night. Lola let her dream sparkle and fade in the blink of an eye. Of course I told her to go for it, but people have to be comfortable with the risk they’re taking, you have to be okay knowing things may not work out. You have to want something yourself enough to take the risk.
CC: Given the significant number of adventurous, highly capable, female graduates from Ireland whom I have met in Italy, I was wondering if there was anything special in Ireland’s higher education system that particularly encourages equal opportunities, openness to other cultures and entrepreneurship.
C O’T: I don’t know – for sure Ireland has its own gender limitations and inequities as all countries do but I do think that as a society it is a fairly equal one. I certainly never felt limited in any way as to what I could achieve, if I was prepared to go for it. From the age that I was sixteen and for the next twenty one years, we had a female president in Ireland. First Mary Robinson in 1990 – 1997 and then Mary McAleese from 1997 – 2011, so I took it for granted that females were the head of the country for a very long time! It just never occurred to me that there was anything I couldn’t do. In terms of entrepreneurship I always had it in my head that I wanted to work for myself; maybe that came from the fact that my Dad worked for himself. I guess I was lucky to be surrounded by people who believed in me, and I always believed in myself, so it was a good combination. Also Ireland has a very high level of entrepreneurship, not sure why!
Flying must be the most metaphorical activity one can imagine – so it came as no surprise to me that we journeyed from the hangar at the corner of Via Masia and Viale Puecher on Como’s lakefront to Molina, Dublin and beyond. However let’s bring our seaplane back down on water and now give you time to climb aboard and set off for a trip around the lake. Easily done if you contact the Como Aero Club. They offer a test flight for those thinking of taking up flying or they can organise a range of options for those wanting the excitement of being flown in a seaplane. Their website includes a short video of flying around the lake that gives an indication of the beauty of the scenery but can’t go near to capturing the sensation and emotion of an actual flight. And who knows, maybe in years to come your instructor or pilot may well be Ciara O’Toole.