“Talk of the Town” in the Hills of Umbria

Even daily laundry can be cause for speculation and commentary amongst the neighbors.

Even daily laundry can be cause for speculation and commentary amongst the neighbors.

I guess small towns are pretty much the same wherever you go in the world…

You see, my neighbors in Umbria talk about my underwear. Yes, my underwear.

Living in a small rural village in Umbria, everyone pays attention to everything. This is a good thing, because the “neighborhood watch” is fierce. Our home in Umbria is in a hillside cluster of 10 or more homes. Things may appear quiet, but ears are always alert to the sounds of strange footsteps or car engines, and eyes furtively peek out from darkened windows. In these small Italian hamlets, if that’s where you end up living, you’d better get used to your life being up for village commentary and speculation. This won’t be the first and only posting about having my life on display in Umbria. I’m not at all upset about it. I find it endearing and humorous.

I was prompted to write this after having a lovely New Year’s Eve dinner with our next-door neighbors from Umbria, who also live in Rome during the winter. During the course of the meal, my neighbor delightfully recounted a conversation she had during the summer with another neighbor, who lives just around the corner. This was regarding my underwear. We share a communal clothesline, always being respectful of one other’s needs and being sure not to monopolize use of the clothesline. One day I hung out a load of laundry that included a dozen pair of my Italian briefs, courtesy of Intimissimi (a guy has to feel sexy whenever he can). I’m one of those people who like to have at least three weeks of underwear on hand, and I end up washing them in bulk.

Apparently this prolific display of underwear ownership caused quite a stir and my neighbors remarked about my investment in the underwear industry. They chuckled about this “indulgence” of mine, and I’m sure word spread throughout the village. Pretty much anything qualifies for conversation fodder – and this isn’t exclusive to the expats. It hasn’t been unusual for us to be having a coffee at our favorite bar/alimentari at the bottom of the hill, only to find out that people are aware of our activities and whereabouts just two days before.

The bottom line is that we’ve been welcomed with great hospitality and affection and the “talk” isn’t malicious in the least. I like knowing people are looking out for us. So what if my underwear strategy undergoes scrutiny in the process?

Maybe you’re choosing a secluded home up a beautiful cypress-lined drive, and this will afford you much privacy. But, be prepared, because it will also prompt commentary from the locals, and this will be turbo-charged with colorful speculation. Italians are masters of storytelling.

I can only imagine what other stories have been told as the result of the astute observations of our comings and goings. With a bit of exploration, and sufficient consumption of wine and grappa, I’m sure we’ll be able to loosen lips….

Considering Moving to Italy?

Or, are you planning an extended stay in Italy?

Hollywood has helped build a heavily weighted view of living in Italy. While I liked “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Diane Lane is one of my favorite actors) for the sheer entertainment value, I found it a bit sugar-coated (unlike the book). Yes, there were hurdles and tests for Frances, but still it all happened just a little too magically – thanks to the Hollywood “spin” to make sure audiences walked away satisfied. Don’t get me wrong, there is a LOT of magic to be experienced when you live here, but there is also a lot of red tape and bureaucracy, and laws change frequently and unexpectedly. I’ve found things that seemed to be a “no-brainer” in the U.S. to be quite difficult here. For example, the Italian postal service is incredibly unreliable and unpredictable. If you want to raise your estimation of the U.S. Postal Service significantly, just come to Italy and try to post a letter back to the States.

A blue-themed restaurant just in front of the Pantheon in Rome.

A blue-themed restaurant just in front of the Pantheon in Rome.

You might think I’m trying to scare you away. I’m not. I’m just a big believer in due diligence and full disclosure when it comes to factors that can influence a major life decision. Italy IS an amazingly beautiful and endearing country, for countless reasons. However, many people make the move here, only to feel sideswiped by the non-romantic practicalities of living here. Disillusioned, they retrench and head home. I’d hate for that to happen to you.

All the hard work associated with making Italy my home has been worth it, thus far. My heart has been in it from the get-go, and I felt reasonably prepared with the intestinal fortitude needed to deal with a long list of logistics and regulations.

So, here’s my advice based on my experience and my personality, starting with #1, which is….

Have a dream, but pair it with a well-thought out plan.

When The Secret came out, a lot of people thought they only had to dream, and imagine something happening. I believe that is only half of the formula. The other half is the hard work of researching, planning AND doing. Do a vision board (I did) if that helps, and make a list of the details of your ideal life in Italy. Then, start a notebook, and research all the requirements of getting residency (or a long-term stay permit – a permesso di soggiorno), and all the practicalities of living in Italy once you have arrived. There are several good websites with information for potential expats, but I felt like I had to wade through information that didn’t pertain to my particular situation. I needed to know what living in Italy would mean for an American, not for an EU citizen. Believe me, there are some big differences.

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A Coffee Please…the Italian Way

Un cafè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

Un caffè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

God, I love coffee, and Italy is paradise for me in this regard. On one hand, I pass up (most of the time) pizza, bread and pasta, because I am one of those crazy low-carb critters (it really works for me). If I passed up the incredible coffee here also…well, that just wouldn’t be right.

Having just returned from a brief trip to the States, and after having to depend on Starbucks for my daily “fixes”, I’m delighted to be back in coffee-Utopia. I had brunch at a great bakery while visiting South Carolina. The food was exceptional but I found the “American” coffee so foul that I was shocked something so awful would be served and consumed without a mass protest. How people could drink that stuff without wincing was beyond me.

You’re thinking I’m some kind of stuck-up coffee snob now, right? Think what you may, but the Italians have trained me to appreciate REALLY good coffee. And you can find it almost anywhere in Italy. My dear friend Arun, who has also spent ample time in Italy, and I often remark about the exceptional quality of a coffee or cappuccino at the Auto Grill – a chain of auto and truck stops all over Italy. Stop by most truck stops and service stations in the States and you’ll usually get something that will perk you up, but it won’t make your taste buds sing. Stop by an Auto Grill for a coffee and your ire will surge realizing you’ve been cheated with most of the offerings back home.

People often quote “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” For me, this goes for coffee as well.

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Stepping into an Italian Pedestrian Crossing? Proceed with Caution.

If you’re considering stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing. Be afraid. Be very afraid…especially if you are in Rome.

Beware of blithely stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing...you might be courting disaster.

Beware of blithely stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing…you might be courting disaster.

Back in the States I could step into a cross walk with reasonable assurance that oncoming traffic would stop. Sure, I still had to be alert to the signs of hurried drivers who were loath to stop and wait for me to cross, but I found that to be pretty infrequent.

It’s not a great situation pretty much all over Italy, and Rome is the poster child for poor behavior and an overwhelming lack of adherence to the rights of pedestrians.

Beppe Severgnini, in a recent article (Google-translated into English with this link) in the Corriere la sera, quotes some pretty damn scary statistics:

“It is a disease that does not want to heal. In Rome: only 30% of motorists respect the pedestrian traffic lights and only 15% will stop in front of the strips”

I urge you to read this article and to prepare yourself for this unfortunate fact of life. Hopefully it will change, but I’m not willing to risk it. If you decide to assert your right of way in the pedestrian cross walk, you are inviting a game of chicken. Don’t do it unless you see clear signs of a driver slowing down and stopping.

The only places I see drivers in Rome “behaving” is when a police officer is in close proximity to the cross walks. And then, it is only done begrudgingly. Maybe it’s just overly developed paranoia on my part, but when I’m making a crossing, many of the looks I see through appear steely….only made more menacing when the driver is wearing sunglasses.

Beppe Severgnini has become my go-to expert on life and attitudes in Italy. Being a native Italian, he has the credentials to make some pretty astute observations about situations such as these. Read more about him here, and I suggest you consider reading his books and following his articles. He will be a great source of perspective as you build a life in Italy.

Disclaimer: These are my opinions and they, in no way, should be a substitute for your own research and experience.

Brunello Cucinelli believes in giving back, locally….

The school of Cucinelli in Solomeo - And inspiration to investing in the local community and "giving back".

The school of Cucinelli in Solomeo – And inspiration to investing in the local community and “giving back”.

Brunello Cincinelli – Luxury brand with a soul….

 

Yesterday, Simone and I had good sense to thumb our noses at the rain and the dreary atmosphere outside, and to embark on a local trip to the sweet little town of Solomeo. A forty-minute drive from our little hamlet in Umbria, the town of Solomeo is just southwest of Perugia. The drive, if you choose to forgo speed in the favor of a more leisurely drive, gives you a spectacular view of the countryside.

 

Brunello Cucinelli luxury Italian goods - made locally in Umbria, while supporting and giving back to the community of Solomeo.

Brunello Cucinelli luxury Italian goods – made locally in Umbria, while supporting and giving back to the community of Solomeo.

Simone had been telling me about the international luxury brand, Brunello Cucinelli, and how inspiring the owner has been in building his business model of providing exquisitely crafted product in a way that he gives back to and builds the local community. My ears perked up hearing about this, especially after recent news has been loaded with exposès of upscale brands who have gone abroad for cheap labor, and super-high gross margins. Come on…the idea of a product that costs €1,000, but costs only €40 to make seems, to me at least, like price gouging and taking advantage of cheap labor – NOT good healthy business practices. But, Brunello Cincinelli has a different, healthier vision in my estimation. He provides the luxury goods that people want, but he does so by training, supporting and building a local community. In Solomeo, il signor Cucinelli invests in the local resources and rising talent, underwriting their training and building local expertise in the artistry of designing and building clothing with the utmost attention to detail. He believes in the local Umbrian talent and resources. And, the net result is a robust community that continues to grow and thrive.

While strolling through Solomeo, we passed the theatre that il signor Cucinelli built for the village. The chiseled plaque above the entrance reads “Brunello Cucinelli wanted this theater of man, in the presence of nature’s theater, to always remind us of the eternal values of the beauty and the dream.”

I find his dream inspiring, and I hope that other brands will learn from his example….

 

Two glasses of white wine and a plate of meats and cheeses - after touring Solomeo and the artistry of Brunello Cucinelli

We enjoyed a glass of white wine and a plate of meats and cheeses – after touring Solomeo and the artistry of Brunello Cucinelli

Italian Hand Gestures – Artistry in Action

Using the hands to punctuate conversation and emphasize emotional content in a conversation is essential to Italians. For them, the hands are as essential as the mouth for communicating. Hollywood has had a heyday with this…to a fault. I’m not saying the portrayals are inaccurate, just a bit over the top. Sit an Italian in front of a movie screen or TV featuring Italian “characters” and ask them to “weigh in”. Most will roll their eyes and make hands gestures of their own to express outrage that the Americans are “at it again”.

Check out the following “brief” YouTube videos explaining some of the most prolifically used gestures. WARNING: In the second video some of these are a bit explicit, so if swearing offends you, you might want to skip over. However, if you’re planning on spending much time in Italy, you’d better start getting used to creative swearing, with words and hands.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=iB-kz4Rj7MY

 

www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wWhnFgSFMM

This brings me to share a piece of advice. Embrace the language and do everything you can to perfect your vocabulary and pronunciation, but leave the Italian hand gestures to the Italians. Understand the “vocabulary” of the Italian gestures so that you know when a person is emphasizing a point, expressing outrage, saying someone is bullshitting them, telling someone to go f#*k themselves, or communicating countless other sentiments. But, if you try to emulate these hand gestures, in my humble opinion, you’re playing with dynamite. These movements of arms and hands are so natural and fluid for Italians because they starting learning them when they were starting to walk. Just try reading up on the breadth of hand gestures and soon you’ll realize how you could end up “mis-pronouncing” with your hands. Italians will spot the pretense right away and it won’t be endearing.

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This Chandelier’s Journey to a New Home

The Chandelier's New Home

Who would’ve thought an invitation to a friend’s villa for Sunday lunch would result in a beautiful new chandelier hanging in our Umbrian home?

Just last week we drove up in Umbria (from Rome) to warm up our little home, to check mail, and to see our newly installed chandelier. We couldn’t be happier…or more grateful for how we received such a magnificent addition to our home. At the heart of this chandelier’s journey to a new home is a story of Italian generosity and hospitality.

We met Marcello and Romana almost two years ago at the home of one of our neighbors in Umbria. Their warmth and easy laughter helped us feel welcomed into our quaint locale. We saw each other many other times at meals with friends, and at local events, each time vowing to make lunch plans at their home soon. Conflicting schedules (mainly due to our busy travel schedule) made it seem like it would never happen. But, in late October we called, and Marcello and Romana invited us to a Sunday lunch at the family villa about twenty minutes away.

A sunny November Sunday afternoon, and a verdant drive leading to a magnificent estate.

A sunny November Sunday afternoon, and a verdant drive leading to a magnificent estate.

It was Sunday,”Il giorni dei morti” – the day of the dead, which is the day after “Tutti i santi” – All Saints. Halloween had been Friday yet the most evidence I’d seen of Halloween in Italy were a few pumpkins sitting about (no carved Jack ‘O Lanterns), and a couple of decorative witches. No trick or treating here. If you dressed up in a costume and headed around the neighborhood to knock on doors and get candy, you’d probably give someone a major freakout and you’d end up getting shot instead (October IS, after all, the beginning of hunting season here in Umbria).

Our Sunday lunch with Marcello and Romana (and with our good friends and neighboors who had introduced us) was a 4 1/2 hours affair. We had been gifted with a day of brilliant colors, light that presented everything in amazing clarity, and unusually warm temps. Their home is a magnificent 9,000 square foot abode, with origins in the late 1200’s. It is lovingly and painstakingly restored. Frankly, I don’t know how Marcello and Romana keep the house so immaculate, and how they also work the land – which is also substantial.

When first we entered the house into the great room, where we were to have our long, leisurely lunch, I knew we were in for a special experience. A robust fire drew us into the the room, and I soon noticed a spit of sausages cooking in front of the fire. Romana emerged from the kitchen, where she had been hard at work, and we exchanged greetings and kisses. Then, Marcello took us for a tour of the property and the house. The house kept unfolding and unfolding, like Russian nesting dolls. Every room was unique, and the artistry of lamps, doors, tables, etc. was inspiring. I would need a map, or GPS to find my way through this house again without getting lost. There were seventeen bedrooms alone, and at least ten bathrooms. Geez.

Bottle "art" in the cellar of our friends 600-year old villa.

Bottle “art” in the cellar of our friends’ 700-year old villa.

The hearth in the great room, greeted us on our arrival for a long, leisurely Sunday lunch.

The hearth in the great room, greeted us on our arrival for a long, leisurely Sunday lunch.

We returned to the great room for lunch, and after the hour-long tour, I was famished. One of the many things I have come to love about life here in Italy is the communion that is inherent in having meals together. This is certainly not a news flash to anyone who has experienced life in Italy, or a Thanksgiving or Christmas “Italian style” in the U.S. But, I feel compelled to extol the benefits of such a way of life and a way of slowing down (no checking emails or texting at the table) to be present. I, in particular, have not always exhibited such appreciation and respect for being present. This was a good lesson for me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t not have been truly present for great generosity and warmth.

Our meal, which was served alongside loads of hearty conversation and laughter was:

Verdure fritte (sage, onions, cauliflowers)
Pepperoni ripieni (green peppers stuffed with meat)
Zuppa di zucca (pumpkin soup)
Salsiccia arrosto e tacchino fritto (roasted sausages and fried turkey breast)
Frutta (fruit)
Torta di noci e ananas (nut and pineapple cake).
Cafe
Castagne arrosto e novello falo vino (roasted chestnuts and new wine from Lungarotti – an essential pairing).

Le castagne

“Le castagne”, or chestnuts roasted (truly) by an open fire, capped off our amazing Sunday lunch.

Il Vino Nuovo

“Il vino nuovo”, new wine, from Lungarotti is a crucial pairing with freshly roasted chestnuts.

 

You’re probably wondering, by now, where the hell is the chandelier in this story. Well, at this point it makes its entrance…

We were wrapping up our amazing lunch, and I was leaning back in my chair while letting my gaze move around and take in everything in the great room. I saw a fairly sizable chandelier, and remarked at how beautiful it was. Marcello smiled and asked me if I wanted it. I was embarrassed, and my partner quickly tried to back pedal on my behalf. But, Marcello, wanted us to have the chandelier. He insisted. And, I said “Grazie, sei troppo gentile!” – Thank you, you are too kind!

So ended our afternoon together, and our conversation in the car on the way home centered around when the chandelier would show up at our house. “Probably sometime much later.” we concluded.

Yet, a week later, we received a call from our neighbor Anna, telling us Marcello was arriving shortly with the chandelier in tow. He arrived, smiling profusely, and he and Anna’s husband carried the fixture into its new home. Soon our modern Ikea light would come down and be replaced with a light with great character and history. For our eclectic mix of old and new, this would be perfect. And, now that we have seen it installed, it is indeed perfect for us.

Just think…this chandelier’s journey to a new home began during a warm, wonderful gathering of friends in the Umbrian countryside. I continue to be blessed in new and unimagined ways.

Tips for Getting Your Italian Visa

Italian Visa

With my Italian Visa successfully in hand, I had the official “green light” to begin my journey as an expat.

This is the crucial step in either moving to Italy for good, or for going for an extended stay. But, you won’t be going anywhere in Italy for such an extended stay if you don’t procure your Italian Visa.

I obsessed about this, and I spent countless hours online combing though information trying to find out EXACTLY what I would need to guarantee success. Some information was pretty black and white, and other information about requirements and the approval process was discouragingly “grey”.

Firstly, you need to determine which type of visa for which you want to apply. Student visas are fairly easy, as long as you have plenty of documentation regarding your place and course of study, your length of stay, and documentation of your place to live. Work visas are pretty hard to get, unless you are being sponsored by an Italian company or a U.S. company doing business in Italy. Again, lots of documentation. Remember, the economy in Italy has been pretty dicey for the past several years, and jobs aren’t in abundant supply. As you might imagine, the Italian government wants to do its best to prevent foreign interlopers from snatching jobs away from Italian citizens. Understandable.

Then there is the elective residency visa, which basically states you are coming to Italy NOT to work, and that you have sufficient financial resources to live without becoming a burden on the country. This is the grayest of all requirements, because there is no published criteria for the threshold of required financial assets, and those requirements seem to be much higher when applying for your Italian residency visa, than applying for your permesso di soggiorno (stay permit) that takes over from the visa once you have settled in Italy.

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The Art of Italian Greetings & Goodbyes

If you spend any time in Italy, and you want to begin to endear yourself to the people here, you’d better familiarize yourself with the art of Italian greetings and goodbyes.

Don’t abuse “Ciao”.

This is one the biggest missteps Americans make when they come to Italy, blithely tossing out “Ciao” everywhere when greeting an Italian or saying goodbye. Most people will acknowledge you, but you might as well have “unenlightened foreigner” stamped on your forehead. My partner, who is Italian (born and bred here in Italy,) has helped me embrace a few important guidelines for when saying hello and goodbye.

Italian Hello and Goodbye“Ciao” is a greeting or a goodbye used for people with whom you have a familiar relationship. Don’t use it with strangers. “Salve” is the polite way to address people you are meeting for the first time. I don’t usually make the switch to “Ciao” unless the other person does so first. It’s kind of like them saying “It’s okay to be a bit more casual.”

As for saying goodbye to someone you don’t know, always use “arrivederci”. I know, it’s a mouthful, and you may stumble over rolling your r’s, but practice, practice, practice.

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A Cat’s Journey to Italy

Francesca, a California girl, made the long trip to Italy with flying colors.

Francesca, a California girl, made the long trip to Italy with flying colors, in spite of my anticipating otherwise.

One of the many considerations and practicalities you will need to tackle when planning the logistics of your to Italy is the relocation of your pets. If you’re really going to pull the trigger on either a long term stay in Italy, or a permanent relocation, you’ll have to do your due diligence in getting this figured out. Our cat’s journey to Italy was an adventure that began with extreme paranoia on my part….

Francesca is a feline beauty. Rescued from an animal shelter when she was 2 1/2 years old, Francesca came home to my apartment with “issues” – meaning she was 90% sweet, adorable, and loving. The other 10% was pure, wildcard craziness and unpredictability. I enjoyed my many nights of her cuddling up next to me. Such periods of togetherness kept luring me into a false security of a devoted “daughter” who would never hurt me. And, then she would “turn” at a moment’s notice, leaving me with deep bite marks or scratches…and usually a parting hiss, as if to underscore her sudden bad mood, and to remind me that I could never, ever, really let down my guard.

I share this so you can understand why I began losing sleep as the day approached that I would have to put her on a plane with me. Sure, there the were necessary examinations, approvals, and paperwork, but what I feared most was how I would get her through almost 24 hours of travel, from door-to-door, without needing plastic surgery to repair my shredded flesh. And, then there were the fears regarding my fellow passengers. My nerves are usually shot fairly quickly in the vicinity of a screaming baby on board. I could only imagine the impact on fellow travelers of a yowling cat.

Can you tell I was building a huge horror film in my head?

Let’s set all of that aside, for now, and talk about the logistics of taking a pet to Italy…

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