This is probably the longest post you’ll ever find in this blog but it is worth it.
When April sent me her replies to my questions for my Expats in Italy interview, she told me to cut and edit as I wanted – and I actually did, a little bit – but I just couldn’t take out what was written in her answers, it was too full of wisdom to be taken away.
So I decided to leave it as it was and I hope you don’t mind this post being too long for my standards and will enjoy reading this lovely story of a couple that left the States and relocated in Italy, living the adventure of leaving everything behind, beginning a whole new life, and restoring an old Tuscan villa – I admire your courage, guys, I really do!
The lady who answers my questions today is April, she is from the States and now lives in northern Tuscany, in an old beautiful villa named Villa Magnolia, where she hosts amazing retreats for ladies coming from all over the world. If you want to learn more about all the things she does, you can check her website. or take a look at her Facebook page.
But now I’ll let her speak!
Hello April! 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?
Thank you so much, Cinzia, for this opportunity to share my story! My name is April M. Lee, and I’m certified as a holistic life coach, wellness coach, and food psychology coach. I also have bachelor’s degrees in Business and Psychology, and a master’s in Mental Health Counseling. All that to say I’ve been in the counselling/coaching field for a long time . . . over 20 years now.
I started my own coaching company in the States in 2011, and had been thinking about adding women’s retreats for some time. But when I began entertaining the idea of hosting them in my home, my company creatively changed directions. Most of my clients are based in the United States, so I thought adding a foreign destination to the mix might further push the boundaries of any comfort zones (both physically and metaphorically).
In October 2016, I pushed myself out of my own comfort zone when my husband and I bought a Tuscan villa and relocated from the U.S. to Italy. So far, I’ve hosted two retreats (which were quite magical), with two more coming up very soon. (In fact, the June retreat is already sold out!)
It’s an entirely different business model, hosting clients in my home, where I live on a daily basis year-round. So the retreat is at once more intimate and more real. The women who attend become part of my family during the week (and beyond).
beautiful Villa Magnolia
When did you visit Italy for the first time? What was your first impression of the country? Is it still the same or has it changed over time?
Though I grew up next door to Italian grandparents, I didn’t visit Italy until 2013. My first impression of the country was the feeling that I was home. Italy stole my heart, especially since my first exposure included meeting and being warmly welcomed by blood relatives.
This experience immediately allowed me to recognize and embrace my roots . . . the Italian exuberance, animation, energetic passion for life. Italy is gritty and lively and colorful, a bit chaotic too. The personal connection to an unfamiliar place made my first time in the country very special.
And now? It’s both the same and different. Though I am still attracted to all that made me fall in love with Italy the first time, I’m not just visiting, I actually live here. And I’m still trying to smoothly assimilate into my new culture.
celebrating the issuance of the marriage certificate by the Italian municipality
You have been living in Italy for a little while now. Was it easy to get used to living here? What were the biggest challenges you had to face? And what is the biggest culture shock you experienced?
Following right along from my previous answer . . . in many ways, I am still floundering in my new environment. I don’t think I could’ve ever prepared myself, try as I might, for the reality of living in another country. I was a fairly seasoned traveller, used to spending time in many different locations around the globe (in South America and Asia, as well as Europe). But there was really no comparison. I had never experienced anything quite like this in all my life. Definitely a huge learning curve.
What hit me the most when I arrived though – and what I hadn’t completely prepared for mentally – was the tremendous impact of every single thing changing all at once! EVERYTHING was suddenly different. NOTHING was familiar. The language and the culture, of course, but also the far-away location, the food, the currency, the measurement system. How to write the date, state the time, and learn how to convert to Celsius and kilometres. EVERYTHING. Taken one at a time, perhaps doable. Thrown at me in one big ball, it felt utterly and totally overwhelming.
It is (oddly) exactly what I thought in some ways and (more understandably) different than anything I could have imagined in others. But all at once and all mixed up! I’m still sorting through all of that, even two-plus years later. I know that the last 6 months or so have actually seemed like the most difficult to me, maybe because some of the numbness has worn off.
The biggest challenges I’ve faced so far? Hmmm . . .Well, heating our large villa without going bankrupt has been interesting. Stores closed in the middle of the afternoon. The often confusing, conflicting, and difficult governmental regulations regarding the immigration process. Not being able to purchase household/personal goods that I recognize (This bothered me more than I thought it would. I guess it was because these familiar items seemed especially comforting in the midst of such a tremendous upheaval).
a peek inside Villa Magnolia
And I have yet to attempt the Italian driver’s license test. As a result, I haven’t been able to drive (no longer legal driving on my U.S. license after one year of residency). That makes me more dependent on my husband (who has successfully passed the test) than I would like, and more motivated to work on my Italian so I can better understand the driver’s manual and the instructor.
Because another huge challenge has definitely been the fact that my grasp of the Italian language is lacking. This obviously creates problems when trying to get things done. But it also limits my options for new friendships. I really love engaging with people, but without the spoken word, this can be difficult. Cultural barriers exist as well, common assumptions that I’m not privy to. Everyone here has been so welcoming and patient and encouraging, however, and I already have many friends. I just wish I could converse with them on a deeper and more meaningful basis.
However, I would say the most challenging aspect of living in Italy is the geographical distance between me and my sons.
When you live in a place for a long time, that place somehow changes the way you are. Do you feel that living in Italy has changed you? If so, in what ways?
Oh my goodness, I’ve changed in so many ways since my move to Italy! I’ve definitely become more flexible (out of necessity). I feel like a toddler most of the time, always learning something new. And my husband and I have both become used to the idea that we never really know exactly what’s going on. I’ve had to let go of a lot of control, let go of any feeling of ease and efficacy, in almost every situation. It’s an extremely humbling experience.
But it has also been a transformative journey of change and growth. Though boldness includes a lot of fear, I am discovering how strong I am. And I have a message to share with the world. A purpose, a concept, that is on its way to being fulfilled through my retreats. About dreaming bigger, about dreaming better. About finally chasing, and actually catching, those dreams. I took the leap, and I hope to be the example of what can be. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m proving that it’s possible to do scary things. Italy is a magical location, and Villa Magnolia a worthy landing place for women with intrepid souls.
the secret garden at Villa Magnolia
This adventure of mine doesn’t look exactly like it did when I first dreamed it up. It’s twisted and turned a lot along the way, just as life tends to do. But I’m proof that, if you stay with it, if you battle through the obstacles, you can push yourself much further than you’ve ever imagined. And so I bring this unique perspective to my retreats. To act on opportunities that arise, to not miss them even if cleverly disguised. To never lose sight of the vision that’s propelling you. To not let any temporary loss of comfort, or fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, hold you back.
Yes, I’ve changed a great deal in the past two-plus years, but not necessarily in the ways I’d been expecting. And in many ways I haven’t yet been able to fully grasp. It’s so hard to put it all into a cohesive and tidy package, and explain it. I haven’t recognized myself at times. Everything I’ve had to navigate my way through was foreign to me. And I had to somehow assimilate the old with the new, try my best to adapt to all the changes and survive, while still maintaining my true self that I’d spent years discovering and cultivating.
As time has gone on, I’ve gotten used to some of the differences. At the same time, however, the quaintness of living in Italy has worn off a bit and I’ve been faced with the stark reality of figuring out how and where I fit in (the subject of many journal entries and blog posts). I’ve experienced what I see as an emotional detox. Filtering through what I need and don’t need in my new life in Italy. Exploring new ideas, sketching out innovative ways to approach fresh priorities. Always growing and moving forward. And always trying to incorporate what is happening with my original dream.
Living far away from your home country must be hard. What do you miss the most about the USA (apart from friends and family, of course)? And what is the one thing about Italy you miss the most when you’re abroad?
I miss the ease of casually relating to people. I’ve always struck up conversations with complete strangers everywhere – at the grocery store, waiting in a line, at the doctor’s office, on a bus. I can’t do that anymore, and it creates intense loneliness for something I took for granted in the U.S. And, of course, just ease and familiarity in general. And I miss stores – filled with everything imaginable – that are open 24 hours a day, especially in the middle of the day (haha)!
When I travel away from Italy, I miss the new life I’ve worked so hard to create here . . . my home, my cats, my neighbourhood, my new simple routines, my circle of friends. I asked my husband how he would answer this question, and I could readily identify with his answer: “the challenge of simply living, like a child, where everything seems a wonder, at the ragged edge of overwhelmed”.
I still feel as if I’m living with one foot each in two different worlds, and that only allows me to walk so far in either. Each time I visit the States, I find myself hovering in that liminal space, in that zone of limbo. Realizing it’s no longer my home, knowing I will be returning to Italy, creates this surreal filtered lens while I’m there. I’ll eventually find my place of belonging, but I’m not there yet.
I have read on your website that you renovated an old villa (which looks amazing, by the way). Was the process easy? What about the dreaded Italian bureaucracy?
Villa Magnolia is over 100 years old and had been empty somewhere between five to ten years when we bought it, neglected even longer. My husband and I chose to renovate it ourselves, with no outside help other than an energetic young Albanian woman who came to the villa about 10 hours a week and did whatever tedious task we asked her to do, working right alongside us.
We did this primarily to save money, but also to be able to do it on our own timetable (which allowed only 8 months before my first planned retreat). In addition, we chose to do the renovations ourselves because we wanted to feel truly invested in creating our home, a home that would be exactly what we’d envisioned. And I should add that my husband did the vast majority of the work, with me helping when and where I could.
Though the house was in good structural condition, it needed thorough bleaching and cleaning (lots of mold issues), and there was a great deal of cosmetic work to be done. It was HARD, very hard, especially with such a huge house on the tight deadline we set for ourselves. We lived in a state of inhospitable chaos and dusty disorder for months, asking ourselves over and over: “what have we done?” Of course, now that the interior living space is finished, we are over-the-moon pleased and satisfied with our efforts.
Villa Magnolia in the snow
Lots of people dream of moving to Italy and sometimes they have a stereotyped image of the country. What are your recommendations to people dreaming of living in Italy?
Yes, many have compared my life to the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” (which it is worlds apart from). And others have told me I’m “lucky,” which always makes me laugh a little. Though this adventure has been amazingly wonderful, it has also involved a great deal of hard work and many tears of frustration and fear.
It’s just such a uniquely different journey for everyone. I would say search your heart for the true reasons why you’d like to move to Italy. And know yourself, as fully as you possibly can, before even considering this giant leap. Spend time in introspective exploration, fine-tuning your most crucial desires. Start working on your flexibility muscles. Throw away any ideas of things working out the way you’d planned.
It’s difficult to briefly sum up the emotional appeal vs. the reality of living abroad in Italy, though I’ve written a lot about that topic. The vibrancy, the warmth, the ever-present beauty . . . it all takes my breath away each and every day. And though this may sound strange (since I’m not even fluent in the language yet), this is my heritage and I do feel a sense of belonging. I’m different in many ways, but I am also very similar to these open friendly people who talk with their hands and dramatically express their emotions. I intuitively understand some of their nature, though I was born an ocean away. Perhaps it was because my Italian grandparents lived next door while I was growing up, and I witnessed many references to “the old country”.
I’ve found that when I’m not my bravest self, I feel myself shrinking inside. I feel small and helpless, and I feel opportunity disappearing. But when I tackle what makes me anxious, when I go after what I want, when I do something that expands my life, I feel immense. I feel as if my life has more meaning. So I’ve learned that the only way to accomplish what I want is to keep challenging myself, to keep venturing out, to keep risking, to keep bravely writing my story. Moving to Italy has allowed me to do all of that, and maybe someone else will recognize aspects of themselves in my experience.
before and after the renovation
I have also read that you have become an Italian citizen! Congratulations! What about the process? Was it easy? Can you give tips to people wanting to do the same?
Yes, I am very very excited to have become an Italian citizen! Thank you. Well, the process was easy for me because my husband did all of the research and document-collecting! That part was extensive and time-consuming, often difficult, especially when hunting down certain elusive documents and getting them apostilled in the correct states.
Even though my citizenship quest was based on descent (jus sanguinis), it still took almost 3 years to complete because it was based on a female relative (my grandma). Though obviously much quicker than if I’d gone the regular 10-year route! However, it’s much less complicated if the relative in question is male. My case required a court hearing and it took several months to receive the judge’s final decision, then several more to get it recorded in my local comune. My advice? Research your particular case and, if it appears to be anything other than straightforward, ask a lawyer’s advice. Our lawyers expertly handled all of the nuances of my case.
Let’s speak of tourism now. You live in beautiful Tuscany, probably the most loved Italian region by tourists all over the world. But is there still something to discover there? Do you have recommendations for some off-the-beaten-track location in the region?
Villa Magnolia (my home) is located between two bustling villages at the edge of my town, Barbarasco. It’s in the northwestern tip of Tuscany (the lesser-known area of the region), on the border of Liguria. The villa has beautiful panoramic views of the Magra River, the Apennine Range, and the Apuan Alps (with their famous Carrara marble). I live nestled in the historical territory of Lunigiana (Land of the Moon), a magical mix of both mountains and sea, sprinkled with Malaspina and Medici castles.
The Via Francigena (the ancient pilgrim walking trail that extends from Rome to Canterbury) goes right through my neighbourhood. I am half an hour away by car from the Gulf of Poets, where Shelley, Lawrence, and Byron found inspiration (Tellaro is my favourite fishing village there). This area is wondrous and not heavily travelled at this point, so there is still much to discover (which I’m still enjoying doing myself). The more famous Cinque Terre (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is also half an hour away by train, and I am close to Pisa, Lucca, Florence, and Genoa as well.
Speaking of Italy in general, what are three things people visiting the country should do to experience Italy at is best?
1 It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Go where the locals go, especially to eat. I have my favourite neighbourhood hangouts, where I am always warmly welcomed like family. Whenever I’m feeling low, a visit to one of these places always perks me right up!
2 Embrace your experience. Try not to compare it to what you’re used to, but be open to the new and novel instead.
3 Visit the main attractions (because the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower, and the David – among other famous Italian sites – are truly fabulous). But also check out the little hidden villages with the family businesses and bottegas, the curvy one-lane roads, the residents out and about in their everyday lives . . . the real Italy. Such beauty and charm and magic, I promise. I’m so grateful to be able to live in what I’ve just described.
just another beautiful view of Villa Magnolia
Do you speak Italian? If you do, what it your relationship with the language? Was it hard to learn it? Any tips for people struggling out there?
I love words. I am always thinking, always writing. But at this point (and in my coaching work), I think and write in English words. I find the Italian language beautiful. I love hearing it spoken. I grew up listening to my grandparents speak the language, and my dad is fluent in Italian as well. Unfortunately, I’m not.
I have been studying and studying, devoting time almost every day to learning the language. But it’s not coming quickly or easily. I’m finding out that acquiring a second language is not one of my better skills. I am accumulating a fairly large vocabulary of Italian words, but sentence structure and actually responding correctly to someone in a real-life situation is still not happening easily for me.
This has been hard for several reasons. One, I am used to learning things fairly quickly. Two, I am a very social person. I like being able to talk with people everywhere I go, conversing with the checker at the supermarket and chatting with my neighbors. I know that part will come eventually. What’s more discouraging is what I mentioned earlier – how long it might be before I am able to have a meaningful conversation with an Italian friend, understanding the nuances of the language well enough to capture both the emotion and abstractness of the discussion.
In other words, I’m the one who’s still struggling and could use some tips! (This is why I look so forward to your newsletters, Cinzia. They have been very helpful to me in terms of both the Italian language and culture).
Thank you so much, April, 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 and a US lady who runs a hostel in Rome.