Well, it’s not exactly expats I am interviewing today but their story is so interesting that it totally deserves to be featured here.
Today I am chatting with Paul and Lucy Spadoni. Actually, it’s Paul who is answering my questions but his wife Lucy is part of the story as well. And their family too!
I have virtually met Paul when he signed up to my newsletter and replied to my welcome email (I love when you guys do it!). In that email, I ask people a bit more about themselves and why they are interested in Italy: I can’t tell you how many amazing stories I read when people reply me back. When Paul briefly told me his story, I realized that I would be super interesting for you guys as well.
Paul and his wife Lucy have bought a house in Montecarlo – an amazingly beautiful Italian village near Lucca – and spend a few months in Italy every year. After realizing that moving here for good was not possible, they found this alternative solution which works very well for them.
When I read that, I thought that it would be very interesting to know how they did it and how they are experiencing Italy. So I was super grateful when Paul accepted to answer my questions and share his thoughts with us. If you like the interview and want to know more about Paul and Lucy’s life in Italy, you can go check their blog.
But it’s time to let Paul speak!
Paul and Lucy in front of their house in Montecarlo, Tuscany
Hello Paul! 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?
This can be complicated. Currently, I’m a writer and journalist, although that’s really just a hobby. I worked as a newspaper reporter for two years, taught high school for 30 years, and I’ve owned a small construction business for 25 years. Now I no longer teach, and the business only operates for five months a year, so I’m retired for about half of each year, and that’s when I indulge my main hobby, which is learning to live la dolce vita in Italy.
Before I retired from teaching, I took a one-year leave of absence to teach in a British school in Padova. I took my enthusiastic wife and two reluctant teenage daughters with me, and this is the topic of my latest book, An American Family in Italy: Living la Dolce Vita without Permission. It’s a best seller on Amazon.
When did you visit Italy for the first time? What was your first impression of the country? Has that first impression changed after visiting so many times?
I first got the urge to visit Italy when I was 14, but life got in the way. I married right out of college, went to work and had four wonderful children. I finally made it to Italy at age 43, when one of my daughters was an exchange student in Poland, and I came to travel with her at the end of her school year.
I think it’s the antiquity that impresses me the most. We’re used to such rapid changes in society today, but up until 150 years ago, Italians lived the same from generation to generation. I wanted to see what kind of lives my grandfather and his ancestors had experienced. Italy is also changing rapidly, but I have been able to meet farmers here who are still living the traditional lifestyle, for the most part, of my ancestors.
A beautiful view of Montecarlo
You first had a dream about moving to Italy but then you decided to live here only part-time. Can you tell us more about this choice?
When I stopped teaching in 2010, we considered moving to Italy full time, but we weren’t sure it would be wise to burn our bridges. Instead, we decided to embark on a three-year experiment. We would live in Italy for three months a year for three years, and at the end of that time, we’d decide if we wanted to stay in America, move to Italy, or find some middle ground. The three-year trial extended to five, and in the end, we decided that living in Italy for three to four months a year is ideal. That’s when we bought a home in Montecarlo, near Lucca.
Regarding Italian culture in general, what is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Is there something you still cannot get used to and probably never will?
I had read many memoirs written by people who had moved to Italy, so I was prepared for most situations, including the inevitable bureaucratic snarls. We purposely moved to a small city where few people spoke English, so that we would be forced to learn Italian. We avoided joining groups of ex-pats for the same reason. But I think the hardest adjustment is that even though we can communicate in Italian well enough to get by, we can’t really have deep conversations. We have many Italian acquaintances, but no close friends who speak only Italian.
Little steps, big steps: registering for the recycling service
On the contrary, what it the Italian thing you miss the most when you are back home?
It’s a challenge living in Italy, because we’re always learning new things, and we have to use our wits and developing language skills to get by. I get a sense of accomplishment when we solve a new problem, like a leaking roof, a needed permesso di soggiorno or even going to the polizia to obtain a parking permit. Of course, we also miss fresh fruits, vegetables, and pasta.
You bought a house in Tuscany. Can you tell more about the process? Was it easy? What about bureaucracy and these kinds of things?
Buying a home was surprisingly easy and not terribly different than in the United States. The real estate agency provided an agent who spoke English, and we received a lot of help from a bi-lingual friend, Angelika. She steered us to a good geometra who took care of the details and made sure that the house met all the requirements of the city. The geometra found some modifications that had been made that weren’t recorded, and the sellers had to get these approved.
Angelika helped us set up a bank account and get the utility bills transferred into my name and set up for automatic payment, and she referred us to an accountant who takes care of the property tax filings. I don’t think I could have done these things without Angelika. Otherwise, I probably would have asked the real estate agent for more help.
Enjoying life with the family
What would you suggest to people who want to buy a property in Italy? Is there something important they should consider?
It gets cold in Italy during the winters. Make sure your house has an adequate heat source. Mine does, but I’ve heard from a lot of ex-pats that this can be a serious problem. Also, you won’t know if the roof is sound until you’ve been there in a hard rain storm. Our geometra said ours looked good, but he couldn’t tell if it would leak or not because it wasn’t currently raining. It did leak, and after spending a winter with 30 buckets in the attic, we had the roof torn off and re-done.
Let’s speak of tourism now. You live one of the most beautiful yet lesser-known Italian villages: Montecarlo. Can you tell us more about the place and its surroundings?
We chose Montecarlo because it was exactly what we wanted. It’s an ancient hilltop city—built in the 1300s—with a view of the plain of Lucca and the Alpi Apuane, but it’s only about 20 minutes from two good-sized cities—Lucca and Montecatini—and 10 minutes from the smaller cities of Pescia, Altopascio and Ponte Buggianese. It has a train station, two little grocery stores, many excellent restaurants, its own fortezza, and a small but elegant teatro.
It’s noted for its wine and olive oil and is popular with Italian tourists but rarely visited by foreigners. As an added personal benefit, it’s the city where my grandparents were born and married before moving to the United States, so I relatives here.
Life is hard sometimes: buckets in the attic because the roof is leaking
Based on your experience, what would you recommend to people making their lifetime trip to Italy? Is there something they should absolutely not miss (not just a place but also an experience)?
I would recommend that people slow down and stay in the same place for at least three or four days. After years of traveling in Italy, I find I remember most fondly the people I’ve met and not the sights I’ve seen. Stay in a bed and breakfast or an agriturismo, and hire a local guide. That way you’re more likely to meet authentic Italians and experience true Italian culture.
I can’t help but speak about food. Real Italian food is a bit different from the one you eat abroad. What was your biggest discovery? Some food or dish you fell in love with?
The great thing about living in Italy is that one can eat exquisite Italian food without spending a fortune in restaurants. We can buy fresh pasta at a pastificio or supermarket deli, along with sauce that rivals homemade. We just take it home and cook it and we’re dining in style on the cheap. We buy wine from a local vineyard, and it’s inexpensive but still superb. We’ve also learned to appreciate fine local olive oil as a condiment to improve the flavor of almost everything.
Paul and Lucy in Alberobello, Puglia
Do you speak Italian? Are you studying it? Was it easy to buy property and live in Italy without a perfect knowledge of the language?
We say that we’re not proficient, but we’re sufficient. We’ve taken language lessons and have a dozen different books that promise to teach us Italian in a short time in only minutes a day. Rosetta Stone helped a lot. Ten minutes on Rosetta Stone is worth at least a half hour of a group lesson, because the focus is all on you.
It was not hard to buy property. Granted, we didn’t understand most of what the notaio said when he read the contract, but then we’ve bought homes in America and didn’t understand all the legalese either! In the end, we just had to have a certain amount of trust in the sellers, the agents, the geometra and the notaio—and everything has worked out great, for the most part. You can follow our adventures on my blog: Living (with) abroad in Tuscany.
Thank you so much, Paul, for taking the time to answer my questions!
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 and another American lady who now lives a in beautiful Tuscan villa.