Guido has been saving up 5 years worth of practical tips for those of you wondering about how difficult cultural shock might be if you follow your dream. Italy isn't a dream for us any longer. It's now our home, where we live. We slipped into life in Italy very easily starting February 2010. It helped to be in a small town where nearly everyone greets you as you pass. The larger the town, the less you see that, but even in Napoli, if we greet someone on the street they reply. That sort of thing seldom happened to us in America. We wanted to force a truly new way of life on our old habits. We certainly succeeded there.
We always worried about being Americans who’s country dragged other countries into immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but like one woman told me, “we like Americans, but not your government”. Hence, we now have a fellow in town that always comes up to tell us what he heard Obama say on TV. Obama is his hero! He held George Bush and Berlusconi both in disregard!
Our biggest impact of retiring in Italy was the shock of not working, not about where we are living. The Italians are easy, laid-back folks who love life. Although we eat at different hours than our neighbors, and go to bed earlier, most other parts of life are equal. We are capable of eating dinner at restaurants at the normal 8.30-9.00 time and do with Italian friends! Speaking of friends, our natural habits (quiet nature-loving, book reading morning people) don't jive with many Italians or other expats we have met, but they help keep us trying new things in our own way. We are also (at this late date) learning what we really like to do.
We have learned that Italians love to eat, they love to talk, and they love to talk about eating! So often, in conversations in our language class, we are asked what we prepared and ate at certain holidays. Always interesting. We have a Brazilian married to an Italian, four Americans and an English friend who yesterday explained how Brits like to drink more than Americans, and certainly more than Italians who drink very little. A Polish woman started lessons this week, so the cultural diversity in class is growing.
This post is mostly about practical things we have learned living in Calabria for five years. We are still very happy that we chose Santa Domenica Talao. We wanted a place with both the mountains and the sea. We have that here in abundance. The people in our village are genuinely friendly as well. We still have a few places to visit in Italy with similar attributes, like Abruzzo and Marche, but so far, we have never found a place in Italy where we said “boy, this would have been a nicer place to live”. Calabria is a poor area. It is not sophisticated, but it is full of the heart of old Italy.
There are not many fulltime expats in the area. In our small town, there is Di and Doug, and a British couple living fulltime. Lots of Brit, Irish, American, South African, Australian and Norwegian holiday homes here and Scalea. A Canadian woman plans to move here permanently this year, and perhaps a couple guys from Vermont.
Calabrians like to say they are the California of Italy but we average 40 inches of rain that comes mostly Dec-April. Winter can get to -4C/25F and even snow, but three times this week we have eaten lunch on the terrace in shirt sleeves. Looking at our data, the average high temperature for August is 31C/88F. A 3-year average shows 252 days of sunshine, but possibly 20 days more as we lost 2 months of data in 2013 (remember those computer backups folks...)
There’s plenty of info online about buying here. Most important, if you have no Italian skills, is to find an English-speaking estate agent or lawyer. You cannot get through the process without this help. In our locale, there are Calabria Property Management and A&M Immobiliare. Both have websites.
There are two main types of buildings in Calabria: historic--thick stone and plaster walls like ours, and more modern building made of block with a plaster finish. Both types are airtight buildings that do not "breathe" like American ones. Open windows (screens are rare) and closed shutters keep the heat out in summer and in winter older homes are tougher to heat to American standards (21C/70F). Our immediate neighbors’ homes in winter are about 12-16 degrees (55-60F) except in the kitchen or special rooms they heat with wood or pellets. Hence, after extended cold spells like this year, I expect our gas and electric combined will be over 3,500€ for 70 square meters. You can be more efficient with central heating (radiators) but you won't get cheap energy. The modern block houses should be easier to heat too because of the air spaces within the block. Calabria was built for the long warm season.
Just today a friend told us how her family heats their home with a pellet stove that is also connected to the hot water system using one bag of pellets a day at 5€ per bag. Sounds good as long as you have storage space for the bags. We see the pellets for sale all over.
A relatively new idea in Calabria is insulation. The house in the photo above is owned by the village doctor--beautiful modern construction. A few years ago he applied insulated tile to the exterior and plastered over. He tells me his gas bill is way down and he joked he could wear a short sleeve shirt in his home this winter! Also, they have less trouble with mold.
There is also interior insulation that an Irish friend applied to the interior of his new home. It is plasterboard backed with foam and screwed to metal spacers on the wall that create even more air space. You won’t have cold interior walls for condensation and your heating will last longer, but you might miss the solid feeling of real plaster walls. You also won't know how such a system might age over time in this climate.
Some of these immigration thoughts may have value to anyone, but most are meant for non-EU citizens like Russians, Pakistani, Columbians, Canadians, Australians and yes, Americans, thinking of living here. If you are able to claim Italian citizenship through a relative, then this also does not apply to you.
Because we are non-EU citizens, immigration is a big deal and takes a lot of focus and energy. I refer you to our blog post Feb 26, 2010 for some details. Working with Italian government agencies takes patience! It also takes the ability to stand or sit for long hours waiting in queues to deal with an official. As an example, we were ready to become fulltime residents this year after 5 years of renewing our Permesso di Soggiorno (permit to stay). In late November, we waited 2 hours in the Scalea post office just to send our application in. (RULE – never do business with a post office the first week of a month when pensioners come for their money, or the last week when people go to pay all their bills!!) 75% of what a post office does has nothing to do with mail!
When we went for our meeting with immigration at the Questura in Cosenza 5 January, we waited 3 hours in an unheated waiting room with 30-40 others. Unfortunately, the poor official (that we have dealt with before) was all alone that day when there are normally 3. He was so stressed and furious by the time we reached him that he would not accept our application for a Carta di Soggiorno (fulltime permit) because our existing Permessi di Soggiorno were not quite expired yet, we technically weren't eligible for a Cart di Soggiorno as you must live legally in Italy for 5 years before you can apply for a Carta. Our American reasoning – “by the time the new cards arrive, the old ones will be expired and we will have been here exactly 5 years" was not appreciated or even listened to by our assigned bureaucrat--he said (in Italian) “come back in 2 years, now Goodbye”. So, do not apply for anything new until old things have expired (even though the rules say you apply 90 days in advance of expiration). Don't try to be logical, either. We can only assume from that (and the fact that he took our pictures and fingerprints) that he will issue us another Permesso for our 2 year wait. Does this mean you really have to be here legally for 7 years? Probably not, we just shouldn't have been on time. No sense in trying to figure it out.
The first thing you will get is a Codice Fiscale which is a national tax number so you can buy things like property, cars, mobile phones, etc. After you get your Permesso di Soggiorno, you must apply for residency from the community in which you live and can prove you live there fulltime. They will issue a Carta d’Identica after the local constable confirms you are there fulltime. (sometimes the inspection is skipped) This is an important document and what we use to check into a hotel instead of a passport.
The driving license from your country is good in Italy. Should it expire, like mine did, an Italian patente di guida is real fun to get. You must have the support of an Italian driving school who’s classes you probably won’t attend because you cannot understand high speed Italian with 18 year olds. (you pay a fee of around 300€ as if you are in class and they take you to written exams in the provincial capital) They no longer give the written test in English. You must get a 90% to pass. It took me three attempts! There are online practice exams that helped. The physical exam is easy if your driving habits, parking, etc. are good.
Before you move to Italy, to get an "elective residence" visa to enter the country you must prove that 1) you have enough outside income to support yourself and 2), you have healthcare insurance. We did all of that, but once we gained residency (an 8 month process for us in 2010), we were told we could go get on the Italian national healthcare system. We did that and it was free, which we thought odd because we felt we should pay something--had even read that foreigners must ante up. Finally, last summer the local woman we renew our health card with said that we must pay to be in the program. 386€ a year for both of us. That is more than fair and we were happy to pay but we were surprised it took them so long to bust us.
Compared to the US, healthcare is a bit odd here. If you need a battery of tests, they stick you in the hospital for up to 2 weeks so they can test you when they are ready to – no out-patient service. Once you are in a hospital it is up to your family (or hired person) to give you personal nursing such as feeding, bedpans, etc and they camp out in the room. Be sure to bring your own toilet paper and bottled drinks as the hospital won’t provide!
Funny things aside, there are quality medical professionals around. An elderly neighbor had a cerebral hemorrhage requiring brain surgery and she had that in Cosenza, 2 hours away and is doing just fine. If you don’t like the wait for doctors in the system, there are some that will work privately at about 100€ per visit (cash only) for which you can seek reimbursement from your home country insurance. In my case, 2 of 3 gave me a receipt to send to the US. Dental care is all out-of-pocket, cash only and we never get receipts.
Speaking Italian is important in Calabria because very few locals speak English. Up north, English is more available. For residents, the government offers free lessons which we have been taking since we arrived. We are making progress, feel comfortable enough in most situations, but have a long way to go. Be aware if you already speak Italian, that in many smaller towns, just about everyone speaks a dialect. They can often speak Italian as well, but amongst themselves or a group including you, not so much.
Cost of Living
Calabria is a much more affordable place to live than the rest of Italy but don't expect miracles. Someone asked on the Expat blog whether their $1700 monthly American pension would support them in Napoli. Can you really live on that in the US? I said no because you lose around 10% of your income to taxes, then another 20-30% in foreign exchange. How can you live on the rest if you rent a place in an expensive large city like Napoli? We live pretty well and it feels like we spend about the same as the US for food and beverage. Nice European clothing costs about twice the American rate (not Armani just plain Docker slacks). Gas and electric are 2-3 times more here. Car fuel is down to about $8/gallon now, but with cars like our Renault Scenic that get 53mpg highway, you don’t notice.
Cars, TV and Computers
Yes, the rumor is true. If you are a non-EU person, you must gain residency (Carta d’Identica) before you may purchase a car. We avoided that by buying a car from an English couple and keeping it in their name till we obtained residency. You might look around for someone to deal with like that. Leasing a car for 6-8 months would be costly. When you get one, it will be twice the amount you are used to for insurance!
Television-computers: You can use simple antennae for Italian tv, or install a satellite dish and subscribe to SKY (owned by your old friend Rupert Murdoch) whereby you have Italian shows and news, cinema, CNN International, BBC, Al Jazeera, Euronews and endless FOX crime shows from America! If you have to have your football, you can add sports to the package. We pay 45€ a month. The sales tax (VAT) crept up to 22% this year.
Just like the US, small rural towns are not granted high speed internet on the phone system because there are not enough clients. We started with a TIM “chiavetta” USB device that is slightly better than dial-up. This year we switched to a TIM wireless modem that is usually ADSL speed. Same company as our mobile phones. Because the signal comes from mobile phone towers, it can be affected by weather, or, heavy user traffic like in August. We like it and pay 20€/month. (40€ for the device) The signal off the nearby tower can vary from 2G to 3G. If you live in a larger town, everything would be more reliable and stronger. If up north near a city, they can give you 4G speed. Fiber optic is going in around the larger towns of Italy this year. We won't get it.
Taxes and fees: Of course there is about a 10% tax on grocery items and a 22% tax on non-grocery. Property taxes are reasonable. Fees for rubbish and water are reasonable. Annual road tax for a car is around 115€, but then you have the expensive insurance. Home insurance is reasonable. Just don’t ask for earthquake coverage (a new offering). Our agent said such coverage would be an additional 800€/year and if you make a claim, they pay for only 50% of the loss. Such a deal!!
Life in Italy is great. Plenty of fresh food in stores and markets, plenty of good restaurants, plenty of fun people. We shop in the village for many simple items, but find more diversity and savings in Scalea 10km away.
There is Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.it from which you can get most things you ever want. The UK branch advises what things cannot be shipped to Italy. Over time, we have had 3 packages from the US intercepted by dogana (Italian customs) and we had to pay duty equal to the value of the package, so we try to avoid receiving anything from the US.
That’s enough, already, with the technical stuff. The fun parts are documented throughout our blog posts. If you come here, you need to learn stuff on your own as part of the challenge!
Cordiali saluti, Guido, Diana and Vincie (in spirit).
|Vincie put up with our idea of living in a town, but we think he missed his farm|