Moving to Italy
How a Tennessee native—after toiling in piles of paperwork—found a new life in the city of Florence
By KAREN MILLS
Editor’s note: Thinking about living—or just traveling— abroad? This is part of a series of travel stories in which we ask Americans living overseas, full time or part time, to profile their adopted locales and guide would-be visitors through the best the areas have to offer. Send us your suggestions at email@example.com.
‘Home is where the heart is.’ As trite as that expression is, I know of no better way to describe how I feel about Florence, which is now my home. I have no Italian ancestry that I know of, so the connection that I have with this land and these people is as much a mystery to me as it is to my friends and family.
I am originally from Nashville, Tenn. Before retiring, I spent most of my working years as director of claims for a large national auto insurer. I have traveled extensively and usually find the good in every place I visit. In particular, I love cultures where family, food and wine are the center of attention.
My first visit to Italy, in 2003, was something of a fluke. I had booked passage on a Mediterranean cruise, which happened to depart from Venice. I arrived in the city the day before we set sail—and didn’t want to leave. I was immediately taken with the people, the culture and the musical language. During the next few years, I visited Venice again, Rome and finally Florence. I found myself becoming a full-fledged Italian wannabe.
In the end, Florence—with its beauty, art, architecture, color and light—stole my heart. I took a one-year sabbatical and spent that time living in the city, learning the language and absorbing the culture. When I returned to work, my mind was made up: I would move to Italy permanently.
Last summer, after 26 years in corporate America, I cut the cord. I was 52 years old. Financially, the timing wasn’t ideal; waiting until age 55 to retire would have left me with a more lucrative compensation package. Still, I calculated that, with some changes in my lifestyle, I could afford to live overseas.
More important: Life is short. I’m single, my sons are grown and independent, my parents are healthy and happy. The moment was right. Last August, I moved to Florence.
Today, I live in the center of the city in a building that’s more than 600 years old. My apartment is small (650 square feet), 42 steps from the street (no elevator) and expensive on a retirement income (about $1,200 a month). At the moment, income from my investments pays the bills.
My days are a mix of pleasurable tasks and simple pleasures. Mornings begin at a small neighborhood bar with a caffè macchiato and an Italian pastry. I devote about two hours each day to writing a blog, anamericaninitaly.com. The site is one part narrative, chronicling my experiences, and one part travel guide. Surprisingly, the blog has allowed me to meet lots of new people. I regularly receive emails from individuals who have read it and have questions about Florence or Italy in general, or who are coming to visit and want to meet for coffee or a glass of wine.
Two days a week, I go to Italian class to further my language skills. (The government offers the instruction free to immigrant residents.) I am in a book club. I paint. I belong to some expat organizations—A Friend in Florence and the American International League of Florence.
The rest of the time I spend walking (Florence is easy to navigate on foot), enjoying the sights, sitting in the piazzas, people-watching and sampling the local wines. I eat out only occasionally; I shop for fresh fruits and vegetables several times each week in the piazza near my home, and buy fresh bread from a bakery and chicken from a butcher shop.
Perhaps the most difficult part of moving to Florence is simply getting through the door. First, I needed a visa; in my case, an Elective Residency Visa. That meant I had to document, with the Italian Consulate in Boston, my ability to meet living expenses in Florence. I also needed proof of health insurance, which I purchased as part of a travel insurance policy. And I secured the paperwork to allow my two cats to accompany me. All this took about three months.
Once I arrived in Florence, the paper shuffle started again. Within eight days, I had to fill out a 12-page form to obtain permission to stay long term—a Permesso di Soggiorno, which is required for all stays longer than three months.
Eventually, I received my certificate of residence, or Certificato di Residenza, and qualified for medical insurance through the government plan. The latter costs just $540 a year. (Italy, by the way, ranks No. 2 in quality of health care, according to the World Health Organization, compared with 37th for the U.S.) All this took about five months, and there is no one source of information that explains what needs to be done and how to do it. That was frustrating.
The red tape aside, my transition has been relatively painless. Yes, I miss a few things—Dove chocolate, sour cream, popcorn—and I’m not crazy about hanging my clothes to dry. There is little green space in Florence proper, but the beautiful Tuscan hills surround the city. Sometimes on the weekend I take the train to one of the smaller hill towns—Siena, Lucca or San Gimignano—to get my nature fix.
Italians in Florence are provincial and can be difficult to get to know. This is not to say that they aren’t friendly. They invariably are warm and welcoming, and inquisitive about American politics; President Obama generates a good deal of excitement. After seeing me around the city and in their stores over the months, longtime residents know now that I am not a tourist and have begun the dialogue about where I am from and why I am here. They are delighted that I have this passion for Italy and have chosen their city as my new home.
It can be lonely living far from one’s roots and knowing only a few people. But getting out into the piazzas, looking for and participating in expatriate organizations and taking classes, among other activities, have allowed me to make friends. Technology such as Skype, MSN messenger and other networking and telecomputing services help me stay in touch with people back in the U.S.
Every day I marvel at my good fortune and the many blessings that allow me to live in this beautiful city. I walk along the river, across the bridges and through the narrow cobblestone alleys and think about the history of Florence and the people who walked here before me. I hope to be able to return to the U.S. a couple of times each year to see friends and family, but I hope, even more, that they will visit me.
My future plans are to work as a freelance writer and buy a home in Florence. I don’t think I will ever return permanently to the states. My heart is at home in Italy.
Sights to See
If you’re planning a visit to Florence, take time for:
One of the world’s top museums. Holds the masterpieces of the Medicis’ Renaissance collection.
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Houses Michelangelo’s “David.”
The great Gothic cathedral that dominates the city skyline. Climb to the top for stunning views.
This magnificent basilica is the burial site of Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo and other great Italians.
Piazza Santo Spirito
Among the most beautiful of the city’s piazzas, and a great spot for a romantic dinner.
Breathtaking views over the city. Take a bottle of wine and sit on the stairs at sunset.
San Lorenzo Market
This open-air market has every-thing from leather jackets and handbags to T-shirts and trinkets.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page R9