It’s not actually an expat I am interviewing today but someone with a great story to tell.
To be more precise, it’s not someone but a couple: Ilene and Gary Modica of Our Italian Journey, a blog that tells the story of their one-year trip around Italy. As it happens in most cases, I have virtually met Ilene because she commented to a post on my blog. In the comment, she left a link to her blog: when I checked it and briefly learned about their story, I immediately sent an email to Ilene asking her if she was interested in being featured here.
As you are about to learn in the interview, Ilene and Gary recently got their Italian citizenship – after an incredibly long process – and decided to leave everything behind to spend one year visiting Italy and learning more about what can now be called their second home. In the blog, they document all the stages of this trip and also give tips and recommendations to fellow travelers.
Their blog is so interesting that I was sure their interview would be great and I was not wrong! Once again, I am really lucky to have found someone with such an insight into Italian culture: they don’t live here but have been able to capture some really key aspects of Italian life. Moreover, they consider the Italian train system “wonderful” and I have NEVER heard someone say such a thing. They must be really special people!
But it is time to let them speak now.
Gary and Ilene in Florence
Hello Ilene and Gary! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. First of all, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your life and work?
Ciao Cinzia! Thank you for inviting us to share our story with you and your readers. Gary and I were both born and raised in New York. Once married, we tried living in Florida for 4 years before deciding to move to Phoenix, Arizona. We have been in Arizona now 30+ years. We love it especially since our two daughters and Gary’s two children all live there with our nine grandchildren! Gary and I both retired at the end of last year. Gary was a Master Club Builder for the golf industry and I have always been an Executive Assistant.
I usually interview expats but when I checked your website and learned about your one-year trip around Italy, I immediately wanted to know everything about it! Why Italy? How and when has your love for Italy started?
Our love for Italy started during our first trip back in 2010. We spent a little over two weeks exploring and then returned in 2012 for another three weeks. The architecture, culture, food, the people all grabbed our hearts and we felt like we were home.
It was then that Gary decided he wanted to obtain dual citizenship through Jure Sanguinis (bloodline) through his grandfather on his father’s side. His grandfather came to America in 1911 yet never became a US Citizen. It was in 2013 we started the process of gathering documents to make our dream of being Italian Citizens a reality.
Enjoying Sicily in Caltagirone
What was your first impression of Italy? Has this impression changed after being here for a while?
Our first impression of Italy was the beauty of the architecture. We have yet to visit other countries in Europe but know from photographs on social media outlets like Instagram and Facebook that European architecture is like nothing you will find in the United States.
Our love for architecture has not changed and has probably enhanced in all our visits here. We still make sure to stop and look up at buildings so we don’t miss a beautiful tribute (fresco or statue) of Mary which you can find in the oddest places, like on a corner of a building.
I usually ask this question to expats, but I think it is quite suitable for passionate travelers like you guys: what is the biggest culture shock you experienced here in Italy, if you had one?
My experience is different than Gary’s as he is better at the language than I am. He grew up with listening to grandparents speak Italian where I have not. I knew language was going to be difficult and perhaps you might not consider it a shock, but when you want to speak with someone and you can’t find the words, it makes it difficult. It is a goal of mine by the end of this year, to become better at the language and be able to make complete sentences.
Now I want to know more about this awesome trip you are enjoying. What is the plan? When and where did you start? Which means of transport do you use? Tell us everything!
We have been to Italy twice, both times for 90-days while waiting for our citizenship. We lived in Parma and Florence and loved both. It was indeed a test though; could we live without constant interaction with our nine wonderful grandchildren? We passed each 90-day test knowing we could use Skype and WhatsApp. But what about an entire year?
We finally received our Italian passports at the end of September 2018. We immediately began planning where we wanted to start our journey. We celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary and Thanksgiving with family and then left Arizona on November 28th to begin our year adventure. We purchased one-way tickets flying from Arizona arriving in Rome. We wanted to experience Christmas in Rome and thought we would spend 90-days in the Eternal City. We had been to Rome previously but just stopping for a few days. We never really explored Rome before.
On a side note, I will say the most amazing feeling was getting to customs in Italy and being directed to go through the “Italian” line, scanning our passports and walking right through. It was a first time experience we will never forget – we are Italian citizens!
Florence at its best
While in Rome these three months, we have taken a few day trips. Unfortunately, living in Arizona in the dry desert for as long as we have, we truly have felt the cold and dampness of Italy in the winter. There have been many days we were hibernating in our apartment; not wanting to go outside. We went to one of our favorite cities, Florence to enjoy the Christmas light festival there and reconnect with friends we made there previously. We visited the small town of Orvieto and loved it. We think that Orvieto would be too small a town for us in the long run for retirement but the town is full of charm.
We are headed to Sicily for a week in a few days to explore the western part of the island that we have not visited before. We are also staying in the town where we are now both from; Lacodia Eubia. Because Gary’s grandfather was born there, and going through him for citizenship; we are now official citizens of this small town. We will be staying there a few days to see if perhaps there are any relatives and to pick up our Italian Birth Certificates! How amazing is that?
March and April we will be staying and exploring Puglia while in Conversano. We have not yet visited the Puglia region before and looking forward to this small town stay. In May we are then headed to Florence as our youngest daughter and her boyfriend will be coming to visit for 10-days. Neither has been to Italy so we feel Florence would be the best place to show them a little bit of everything Italian.
a colorful shot of Burano
As of today, that is all we have booked and confirmed. We have entered an Airbnb contest and if chosen (only accepting 4 people!), we will be helping a small southern town, Grottole come back to life. They need help with agriculture and almost everything. If we are fortunate enough to be chosen, that will be June-August. Fingers crossed! If we are not two of the lucky four people, we would like to spend some time in two regions we have yet to explore; Calabria and Piemonte.
Our preferred method of travel so far has been the wonderful Italian train system. It is easy to use and understand plus the people working for the train lines are there for your assistance. Most Italians travel by train so we figured we should too although we will be renting a car for our Sicilian trip and for half of our Conversano trip.
Was it difficult to organize such a long trip? Any difficulties you encountered?
It is really not that difficult to plan any trip if you are organized. The one difficulty we have encountered is that most apartments are rented for a minimum of one year. Finding a furnished apartment for 1-3 months is not always easy. Sometimes it takes us a month or two using various sites to find something that meets our criteria.
Are you planning of settling in Italy or will you come back to the States at the end of the trip?
We will return to Arizona in November 2019. We promised ourselves this year to determine again, if we can live apart from our grandchildren for 6-8 months of the year. Perhaps we will become Arizona “snowbirds” and return there during the winter. I think our blood has thinned so much from living there so long that we both feel the cold a lot more than when we were young and living in New York.
Ilene and Gary in Amalfi
This year will hopefully bring us a few other answers to our questions. Where would we want to live; in the north or south? Do we want to live in an apartment in the historic city center (centro storico) or just outside of town? Do we want to find a small vineyard or olive trees to take care of? We love Italian wine so why not make it ourselves?
Do you have tips for tourists coming to Italy for the first time? What would you recommend to someone who is organizing his/her dream trip to Italy?
We love hearing from people that read our blog about how a post helped them decide what to see and do in a certain town or how our post on train travel made them feel more comfortable knowing how to validate their ticket ahead of time. We enjoy when people ask us to help them with their itinerary or tell them of a restaurant we recommended and it was the best meal they had! Our blog is filled with travel tips and suggestions for visiting Italy.
There are a few things I recommend for anyone planning their dream trip to Italy. First, I highly recommend that you understand before you even leave for Italy that you will not be able to see and do everything. You will not enjoy a trip if you are exhausted from traveling from one place to another. Depending on the time you have, see only a few cities. Plan to return to see others.
the amazing Cinque Terre
The other recommendation is to do your research. For example, if you are headed to Venice, find out what the main attractions are and what days/times they are open. Create a chart and include this information. You never know if the weather will turn and what you planned for one day would be better indoors for another. We have a simple Microsoft Word table on our blog for this type of planning. You just need to be flexible and have the information available to you to be able to do this.
Based on great experience about the country, it would be great if you could name three experiences people must not miss to enjoy their Italian stay at its best.
1. Partake in local events. We were staying in Florence during Easter. We found out about the various events taking place through the Florence Information Center and we actually took part in a 400-year old tradition of taking the flints from a church to the Duomo. It was a medieval ceremony that was amazing and memorable.
2. Don’t eat at touristy restaurants. Most (not all) tourist restaurants will have their menu on display outside the restaurant. You will find these at main attractions such as the Colosseum or The Vatican. Some of the best food we have ever eaten was in small out of the way restaurants. When we were in Sorrento, we walked down to the marina and there were several nice restaurants to choose from. We walked past this one and they were singing “happy anniversary” and decided that this was a family “local” restaurant. We had the best food and experience at this restaurant!
3. Travel by train. Gary and I have learned that traveling by train is more relaxing and easier than we ever thought. It is inexpensive and a great way to see the countryside. We would rather travel by train then rent a car – any day. When possible – we train travel is our choice for transportation.
Having fun in Pisa, Tuscany
You know that we can’t talk about Italy without mentioning food. What is your favorite food and why? Is there something you don’t really like, instead?
Gary is definitely more adventurous in this area than I am. I have learned that when you are in an area of Italy that specializes in a dish; you should try it. When we stayed in Cinque Terre, I am not fond of anchovies but let’s face it – you are right there on the water! I had to try them and I’m so glad I did. They were amazing and tasted like nothing I had ever tried before.
I don’t know that I can actually say I have a favorite Italian food. I am obsessed with artichokes and love trying the different ways Italians enjoy them. Gary loves seafood and will try anything fresh. We loved being part of the Seven Fishes celebration on Christmas Eve at one of our favorite restaurants in Rome. I think we actually had nine different fishes each so delicious!
What is your favorite place in the country – if you have one – and why? Is there one you really don’t like? Or something that has disappointed you? I am super curious about it!
Gary and I both have a few favorite places. We love the Cinque Terre, Parma and Florence. We would have to say that Rome has disappointed us more than any place in Italy so far. We understand there is much unhappiness with the Mayor of Rome right now and during this stay, garbage is overflowing – everywhere except the tourist areas. I can only say we are thankful it is not summer and the heat is beating down on the excess garbage.
a view of Vatican City
Also, we know parking in Rome is an issue but cars are literally parked everywhere, corners, crosswalks, etc. We even did a post of this because we found it so hysterical. It makes walking the streets difficult as you have to cut through all the cars instead of sticking to the crosswalks.
I have read that you’ve just become Italian citizens! Can you tell us more about the process? Was it hard to get your citizenship? Any recommendations for people who want to do the same?
The process of citizenship was expensive and time-consuming. We learned to obtain a great deal of patience as anyone will tell you when going through this process.
We obtained and submitted original documents to the Los Angeles, California Italian Consulate in November 2015. Due to the fact we resided in Arizona, we had to use the LA Consulate which happens to be the busiest in the United States. After months of no communication, they advised Gary he had to amend some documents. Names had to be amended as they were “Americanized” on birth/death certificates. Each document needs a certification or Apostille and translation. Since Gary was born in New York, we had to contact them for each and every amended document.
This continued for almost 3 years. The lack of communication is the most difficult. You are waiting and waiting and informed of nothing. We hope that they improve this part of the process. Finally, after 9 days short of 3 years, Gary received a one-sentence email saying his citizenship has been approved. Because we were married prior to 1983, I was able to obtain my citizenship through marriage once Gary received his. From here we had to make a Passport Appointment to be fingerprinted and pay more fees.
finally holding Italian passports!
For anyone wanting to go through this process I will recommend you become informed. We were very naïve and after our initial appointment at the Consulate, we were told (by the Consulate and our lawyer) that if we sold our house, we would prove we are serious about our citizenship. It’s a much longer story than that but generally speaking, we sold our home, cars, furniture and pretty much everything we owned a few months after our initial appointment in California. We wound up staying with family and friends until our citizenship was approved almost 3 years later.
It was a crazy time of being “homeless” and inconvenienced and one that if we had checked into further; we could have avoided this chaos as it really wasn’t true; we didn’t have to sell our home to prove we were serious.
There is a great Facebook group out there that can help with understanding the process and we are always available for questions too. We have their information posted on the blog. We especially enjoy separating fact from fiction when it comes to dual citizenship.
on the roof of Milan’s cathedral
We met a lovely lady at the opera in Rome whose family is going through the Miami Consulate and experiencing many of the same obstacles we did. It is not an easy task and now with new laws; it has become even more difficult. To give you an example, the law at the time for our application was 2 years. Now, the first available appointment through the LA Consulate in California is starting in 2026 – yes, that’s an 8-year wait for your initial appointment! Then your application has to be processed, add a minimum of 3 years.
People always ask us about the benefits of citizenship. There is a list of a few:
Travel: the right to stay in the EU with no restrictions.
Career: Ability to work throughout Europe increases your market value.
Healthcare & Education: World class medical and high education at a fraction of cost.
Property: Purchase or rent with ease at lower cost with many investment opportunities. And finally,
Legacy: You can pass the gift of citizenship to your family.
We would love to hear from your readers about any questions they might have about our journey. We would love them to subscribe and keep up with our progress through this year and our final decision in November. Will we have all the answers to our questions, who knows!
Thank you so much, Ilene and Gary, for sharing your experience with us!
If you are interested in more thoughts about Italy, I have a whole section of interviews with expats. I have chatted with a Canadian living in Bergamo, a Polish girl in love with Rome, an American artist who lives in Umbria, another American who moved to beautiful Tuscany, a Mancunian who now resides in Molise, a Scottish lady who is now happily living in Veneto, a British couple who lives and work in Garfagnana, Tuscany, a US lady who runs a hostel in Rome, an American lady who now lives a in beautiful Tuscan villa, a lovely couple who lives in Tuscany part-time and a writer from Seattle who has been living in Rome for 15 years now.