I am super happy to be finally able to chat with an expat again!
As you may know, I really love chatting with expats because it’s a great way to see life in Italy from a different point of view and also because I get to (virtually) meet a lot of really cool people with lots of awesome stories to tell.
I also love the fact that this creates a lot of nice connections. For example, the lady I am interviewing today has been introduced to me by Brandy Shearer, whom I had interviewed here a while ago (she has moved to Italy in the midst of a pandemic, do you remember?).
When I read her story, I immediately asked her if I could interview her for this section of the blog because I think she has a lot of interesting things to say. Her name is Barbara Palermo and, after getting Italian citizenship, has taken the decision of retiring to Italy and moving to the Sicilian countryside, where she and her husband are about to open an AirBnb.
I know that many readers of my blog dream of retiring to Italy and maybe buying property to restore, so I think this might be the perfect interview for you. I am sure you’ll find a lot of food for thought in what she has to say about her experience here in Italy. So it’s time I let her speak now!
Hello Barbara! 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 what has brought you to Italy?
I am the youngest of 5 kids, born and raised in southern California. My parents were also born and raised in the U.S., on the east coast, but their parents (my grandparents) had all immigrated from Sicily/southern Italy in the early 1900s. I met and married my husband, Ken, in Flagstaff Arizona where I was attending university. After graduation, we moved to Oregon where we both worked government jobs until retiring in 2020.
I acquired Italian citizenship in 2011, based on ancestry from my maternal grandfather. My husband then acquired Italian citizenship based on marriage. Once I had an Italian passport, I felt compelled to locate relatives in Sicily. It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience that changed our lives in ways we never could have anticipated. Shortly after that, we decided to retire in Sicily and implemented a 5-year plan to make it happen. We visited the island every year for 3 weeks until we could move here permanently.
You mentioned acquiring Italian citizenship. I know that many people are struggling with this process. Can you tell us more about your experience? Do you have some tips?
For me to get Italian citizenship based on ancestry, it took time for me to do research and interview older relatives before I could even start. It took about a year to gather all the necessary documents. I had to pay a service to find my grandfather’s birth certificate from Sicily. Everything else came from the U.S., but from seven different states. Each one took weeks to acquire, then more time to have them all translated and apostilled. Once I submitted them to the San Francisco Consulate, it took another 5 years for them to grant me citizenship.
Only then, could my husband apply for citizenship, based on marriage. It took about 6 months to gather all his documents and submit them. A year passed and then we were told his documents were too old and we had to get new ones and submit them all over again! Then they needed another document and we had to prove that it didn’t exist. Then finally, 6 years later, he got his citizenship.
Luckily we started this process in 2006. So by the time we were ready to retire and move to Italy in 2020, we both had citizenship and Italian passports. My advice to people? START NOW! Even if you aren’t sure you would ever move to Italy. Even if you don’t know anyone in Italy. If you are even remotely interested, start the process immediately. It is possible, but it takes a lot of time, patience, and determination. And you don’t need to pay a lawyer, you can do it yourself. Be sure to read the consulate’s website first and make sure you qualify.
There will be some costs involved. You will have to pay for each certified copy of vital records and for each page that is translated and for every apostille. Then there will be costs involved in Fedex-ing these documents back and forth. For documents coming from Italy, you may need to pay someone to get them for you, so that will be an additional cost.
You have purchased a farm in Sicily and are about to open an Airbnb. Can you tell us more about this amazing project?
We purchased a small, neglected Sicilian farm with a partially renovated villa while still living in the U.S. The process was just as arduous as acquiring citizenship! During each of our annual visits, we worked hard at fixing the place up. Friends and neighbors we had met during our visits looked after the place until we could return. When we finally moved here, there was still a lot of work to do, but very soon it will be ready for us to host guests who wish to experience a Sicilian farm stay hosted by American expats. We hope to attract fellow Americans to this lovely island.
We were Airbnb hosts in the U.S. for five years, renting out a small guestroom in Oregon and found it to be an extremely rewarding experience. We really look forward to hosting guests here in Sicily where we will have two guestrooms and a studio apartment available for tourists.
Our little piece of Sicilian heaven now includes a pregnant Sardinian donkey who will give birth this spring, two miniature goats, two dogs, two cats, and 5 chickens. We have just about every kind of fruit tree you can imagine and a large vegetable garden, blueberry bushes, and grapevines. The property also has an on-site bocce ball court and outdoor pizza oven, two terraces (one on the rooftop), with views of Mt Etna. We also installed a solar energy system.
You have also written book, titled Over the Sicilian Moon. Tell us everything about it!
The process of acquiring Italian citizenship, locating and meeting long-lost relatives in Sicily, buying and renovating an old farm, and moving overseas during a pandemic has been full of crazy adventures that are even hard for me to believe. I kept a journal and eventually decided to self-publish a book about our experiences.
At first, my intent was to document our journey for future descendants who might be interested, wishing that my own grandparents had been able to do so. But then I came to realize that there are many American-Italians who might be interested in doing what we did and perhaps our story will encourage and inspire them. I’m working on a second book that will describe our first year of life in Sicily and so far, it’s also been full of crazy adventures!
When did you visit Italy for the first time and what was your impression of the country? Has that first impression of Italy changed over time?
We had visited northern Italy in 2007, going to Lake Como, Siena, Florence, and Pesaro and enjoyed it very much. But it wasn’t until 2014 when we first came to Sicily and met my cousins that I felt an instant sense of belonging I had never experienced before. We fell over-the-moon in love with the island, the people, the culture, the weather and the food, of course. Honestly, I thought the honeymoon phase of discovering my family’s motherland would wear off eventually, but every year since then it has only grown stronger.
You moved from the US to the Sicilian countryside. Was it easy to get used to living there? What were the biggest challenges you had to face?
Our lives have changed in so many ways in the last year. Not only did we move overseas, but we also went from living in the city to living in the country and from working full-time to being retired! While big changes like these can be overwhelming at times, it is also very exciting. For the first time in our lives, we feel a sense of true freedom. It’s so liberating!
Of course, there are challenges, as we had little experience with farming and raising livestock and we are still navigating a different culture and a new language, but we are doing exactly what we always dreamed of doing and we have never been happier. We were fortunate to have made many good friends who have helped us tremendously. Without them, it would have been a completely different situation.
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?
We visited Sicily every year for five years before retiring here and have now lived in Sicily for 8 months. I would say we’ve adjusted to nearly everything by now, including crazy drivers, the fact that everything takes much longer than it should, and using the metric system, for example.
But the one thing that still annoys us, and probably always will, is the fact that businesses don’t have websites, close for several hours every afternoon, and many only accept cash. When you’re trying to renovate a villa and farm and construct a studio apartment, it requires a lot of shopping for materials, furnishings, appliances, etc., but we can’t just run out and buy something when we need to.
When you live in a place for a while, that place somehow changes the way you are. Do you feel that living in Italy has changed you? If so, in what ways?
I think that living in my family’s homeland, and being retired, has given me the freedom to be my true self and care less about what others think. In some ways, I feel like a child again because every day I must learn new things and encounter new situations. If my brain were to be examined, I’m sure it would be covered in stretchmarks!
Living far away from your home country must be hard. What do you miss the most about the US (apart from friends and family, of course)? And what is the one thing about Italy you miss the most when you’re abroad?
Besides my son and a handful of good friends, I don’t miss anything from the U.S. Because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to return to the U.S. for a visit, or travel anywhere else for that matter. When we are able to travel again, I imagine I will miss everything about my new life in Sicily.
You’ll be working in tourism, so let’s speak of tourism now. You live in Sicily, one of the most beautiful Italian regions. Can you tell people why they should visit it and what they shouldn’t miss when there?
While I haven’t had a chance to explore all of the island yet, I can attest to the beauty of the eastern coast, specifically the area around Taormina and Giardini Naxos. I think everyone who visits, needs to enjoy a leisurely meal at one of the many waterfront cafes, followed by an after-dinner stroll along the seaside, known as La Passeggiata.
It’s the best way to absorb the surroundings, hear the beauty of the Italian language, while smelling the Ionian sea and aromas permeating from all the restaurants. To me, this is the best part of life in Sicily. Of course, they should also see the Greek Theatre, go shopping in Taormina, visit the public gardens, museums, beaches, Mt Etna’s wineries, Isola Bella and the Alcantara Gorge.
Regarding the area where you live, could you recommend some off-the-beaten-track locations to people willing to explore the area?
Every town is known for its patron saint which is highly celebrated. If you are lucky enough to be here during one of those celebrations, I highly recommend attending. For example, the Saint Rita festival in a tiny village close to us, Gaggi, takes place every May and it is a hoot to experience.
The nearby village of Calatabiano celebrates St. Phillip in a spectacular way by racing a statue of its favorite saint down a winding, steep road while onlookers cheer. These are the types of events that really give you a feel for Sicily but are often overlooked by tourists. Most small towns also have amazing churches, museums and castles to explore as well.
I can’t do an interview about life in Italy without asking about Italian food. Speaking of your area in particular, is there something unique in terms of food? Is there a particular dish you’d like to recommend?
Well, all of Sicily is famous for cannoli and arancini, which I absolutely love. But I was surprised to learn that each town has its own type of pasta and here it’s called maccheroni, but it’s nothing like American macaroni. The pasta is long and narrow, made by wrapping dough around a thin piece of metal (we use a bicycle stay) and cooked with a sausage/fennel sauce.
We were also surprised to discover many fine restaurants in the countryside that serve a variety of interesting dishes, like rabbit cacciatore. Everything is of course, locally sourced and fresh! And there are wonderful foods that grow on our property that we have never tasted before, like wild asparagus, zucchini spinosa and citrons.
Do you speak Italian? If you do, what is your relationship with the language? Was it hard to learn it?
Before moving here, I took one-on-one Italian lessons online through Skype. It has definitely helped, but even after studying the language for three years, I am still not fluent. In fact, I mess up all the time and have become used to being in a constant state of confusion and embarrassment. But it’s ok because my friends are very patient and appreciate my efforts.
More than anything, I wish my parents had taught us kids Italian when we were young because learning a new language in my 60s has been very difficult. I’m actually trying to learn standard Italian and Sicilian and look forward to the day I can have a real conversation with my cousins without relying on Google Translate!
Thank you Barbara for taking the time to do this!
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 in a beautiful Tuscan villa, a lovely couple who lives in Tuscany part-time, a writer from Seattle who has been living in Rome for 15 years now, a couple who has just gotten Italian citizenship, a lovely Texan who moved to a tiny little Italian village, a super energetic travel expert from the US now living in Rome, two young YouTubers who live in Prato, Tuscany, a Texan lady who lives in Turin, Slovak girl who now calls Bologna home, a Mississippi lady who is now Neapolitan, a girl from Canada who has fulfilled her dream of living in Florence, a New Yorker who now calls Ischia home, an American lady who chose the countryside near Naples as her new home, a brave lady who has moved to Italy in the midst of the pandemic and an American who has a YouTube channel about life in Italy as a foreigner.