How We Reclaimed Our Life in Italy - International Living

We heard it all. “You don’t know the language. You have no friends or family there. Where will you live? How will you get by? Why are you doing this? Living in a foreign country is different than visiting. You’ll be back within six months.”

This was the chorus of skeptics when my husband, Keith, and I announced our decision to move to Italy.

And truthfully, we had no answers for all the questions. We just knew we were tired of our hectic, non-stop work lifestyle in California, where the cost of living was rising far faster than our ability to earn. Retirement was looking appealing, but there was no way our modest retirement pension could support us.

As avid readers of International Living, we dreamed of moving to a foreign country where the cost of living is cheaper and life simpler. The pages of IL are filled with others who have successfully made the move. If they could do it, we figured, why not us?

We did not believe we had the stamina to continue our stress-filled lives for another few years.

When you can choose any town in an entire country in which to live, it’s very liberating. It’s also terrifying and overwhelming. We had somewhat narrowed our choices to southern Italy—Puglia, Calabria (where my grandfathers were born), or Sicily.

We took the next year to prepare our house for market, sell the property, sell most of our belongings, put some in storage, sell our vehicles, and say our goodbyes. We plucked up our courage and boarded a one-way flight to Italy, with Keith’s uncle still asking incredulously, “Are you still thinking of moving to Italy?”

Pale limestone townhouses glow in the afternoon sun across the province of Puglia. © Milla1974/iStock.
Pale limestone townhouses glow in the afternoon sun across the province of Puglia. © Milla1974/iStock.

Within the Puglia region, we knew we wanted a small town. Without a vehicle, walking distance to services was important. Proximity to train and bus lines and an airport was also important for all those exploratory travels I envisioned. We weren’t particularly looking for a city with a large expat community; we wanted to mingle with the locals.We wanted to be near the water, with a garden.We both grew up on an ocean but had been living inland in California. Now we wanted to be near the water. And my husband wanted a little piece of land in which to garden. And of course it had to fit our modest budget. We put everything on our wish list, knowing that we would have to compromise.

We booked a hotel just north of Bari as our home base while the relocation specialist took us to inspect apartments and houses in various towns along the Adriatic coast that she had already scoped out for us. One month later, we moved into our rental house in the historical city center of Giovinazzo, a very small fishing village on the Adriatic.

Our initial two months were a whirlwind of documents submissions at various government offices. Finally, we were able to relax and actually enjoy our little town.

We got everything on our wish list except a garden. But we are in the heart of the historical city center, close to everything. Our little centuries-old stone house has a rooftop terrace with views of the Adriatic on one side, views of the main cathedral on the other. Apartments and independent houses in this town rent for about $500 to $900 a month. Our $740 house is on the higher side, but our landlord was willing to give us a “registered” lease and our rooftop, sea-view terrace is wonderful. Utilities run another $225 a month (water, gas, electric, and internet/cellphone service).

Our location in the heart of Puglia ensures an abundance of fresh produce and fish. Vegetables as flavorful as they are meant to be, fish caught that morning. As in days of old, we eat whatever is in season. So our daily trips to the town’s little outdoor market are always a tasty surprise. The larger, weekly, market stocks a variety of produce, household wares, and clothing.

All-told, our monthly food budget is less than $225, and we really eat much fresher, healthier food than when we were in California.

Now that we don’t have to work 12 hours a day, we find ourselves experimenting in the kitchen and making more things from scratch. No processed foods in our house! I bake a variety of breads several times per week, trying out the numerous flours available here—most for 45 cents a kilogram—that’s a little over two pounds.


What our little town doesn’t have

No road rage. No blaring sirens throughout the night. No constant tooting of car horns. No fast food joints. No megalithic department stores. No air pollution and smog. No grumpy people. No gangs, little crime. No hectic craziness. No stampedes in stores when there’s a sale. No endless road construction. No empty sidewalks and crowded roadways. No noisy jets booming overhead.

What our little town does have

Fresh, clean tap water. Clear skies. An evocative landscape. Peace and quiet except for church bells. An ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors and character of the sea. A social fabric of connectedness. Friendly locals who smile and greet you “good day.” Families holding hands on their nightly passeggiata. A piazza full of people chatting with neighbors and kids riding bikes or kicking soccer balls. A hometown band decked in medieval attire and banners as they march through the historical city center. Sidewalks of people walking about tending to daily business. A daily outdoor market filled with bountiful local produce and meats and cheeses. Small butcher shops and artisanal cheese makers who gladly let you taste their offerings and are genuinely happy to see you again.

Unlike our sedentary lifestyles in California, walking here is both a necessity and a pleasure. Our health has improved dramatically because of our fresh, organic diet and our daily walks of four to six miles. We have more energy than ever. No matter the weather, we treasure our nightly walk along the promenade to see what the sea is doing: roiling waves or a glassy stillness. Moonlight rippling on the sea is mesmerizing. Granted, at the moment, our travels in Italy have been curtailed, but the joys of living here are unabated. We have substituted exercise videos on our rooftop terrace for our nightly lungomare walks. Our kitchen experiments are a daily adventure (even the failures!), and we have not encountered any shortages of flour and yeast. When life has resumed normality here, we plan on keeping our healthy additions learned during this shutdown. We also expect a country-wide festa when this country reopens for business, as befitting a naturally ebullient people.

Some time ago, we were visiting Naples, and we sipped a cappuccino at an outdoor café, listening to an old man playing Italian ballads on his accordion a few feet away. We looked at each other and asked simultaneously, “Are we in an Italian movie or what?”

Sure, the Italian bureaucracy is every bit as zany as people think. But we don’t have to deal with the officialdom on a daily basis. We do, however, on a daily basis enjoy the gloriousness of this amazing location which more than compensates for Italian red tape.

Whether we are enjoying a walk along the seashore, or choosing the sweetest fruits at the market, or participating in this village’s numerous celebrations, we remind ourselves that we wouldn’t be doing any of these activities in California.

On New Year’s Eve in California, we’d typically retire at 8 p.m., wake up to car horns blaring at midnight, kiss each other, and then roll over and go back to sleep. This New Year’s in Italy was decidedly different. I called my daughter at 1 a.m. to say we had just returned from enjoying the New Year festivities and fireworks displays. She was stunned and could only murmur, “Wow, you have really changed!”

Yes. Gone is the defeated weariness that plagued us in California, and here in Italy, we have reclaimed our passion for life.

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