Ten cities in 37 days, that was the plan.
My husband, Don, retired from the newspaper business, and we lost no time pursuing a move to Italy, our favorite European destination. We headed for the region of Puglia (or Apulia) in the southeast, and Sicily—the only places with enough sun and sea for our tastes—to find the perfect place to live.
On the way from the whitewashed hill town of Ostuni to the chic, seaside city of Trani, we stopped for lunch in Monopoli, on the Adriatic coast. Suddenly there were 11 cities on our list.
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Despite the luminous Baroque architecture of Lecce, the sumptuous Venetian influence in Siracusa, the beachy, laid-back beauty of Trapani, we couldn’t get that simple lunch in Monopoli out of our minds. We parked in the large main square and watched men play cards under the oaks. Then we strolled through the evocative medieval old town to the working port, where we, two career journalists and ardent travelers, took our first-ever selfie.
We noticed how residents greeted each other with the double-cheek kiss and took their leave with an embrace. We were charmed by the colorful fishing boats and the cafe life in the adjacent piazza. (The coffee break is deeply ingrained in Italian culture and the espresso is marvelous.) And we loved the sense of pride and contentment locals took in their town. A waiter told us with some pique that Monopoli was certainly not a suburb of nearby Bari, Puglia’s largest city.
You can guess the rest. Back in the U.S., we stored nearly everything we own and crossed the Atlantic for good, with seven suitcases, two Siamese cats and one helpful nephew. We moved into the medieval center of Monopoli and rented an apartment in a 15th-century building with arched stone ceilings and modern art. We stand on our balcony and watch waves of people beneath our feet as they make their way to the imposing Spanish castle nearby.
The rhythm of the day
Don and I adapted to retirement and the Italian lifestyle with enthusiasm. OK, except for breakfast. Italians have little more than an espresso and a cornetto (think croissant, but not as buttery). I need more and usually prepare eggs, French toast or oatmeal before we head to the gym or out for an energetic walk.
We run errands before the 1 to 5 p.m. lunch break, which brings the town to a standstill as everyone adjourns home or to a trattoria. We enjoyed this custom as tourists—who doesn’t love a long lunch with wine and a nap?—but find it constricting as residents. So we fill what we call the “hours of death” with language lessons, calls to the U.S. to take care of personal business, and yes, an occasional glass of wine followed by a snooze.
Monopoli springs back to life in the evening, with stores and offices staying open until 8 p.m. (If you ever wondered why Southern Europeans dine so late, it’s because they work so late.) We like to join the ritual evening stroll, the moving chat session that finds everyone from grandfathers and babies to teenagers and businesspeople coursing through the main piazza and funneling into the atmospheric old town. We might stop for a glass of wine or meet our Italian friends for pizza and beer.
We left our cars along with our former life. We walk everywhere—Monopoli is thankfully compact—and we prefer it, except in bad weather. We notice more, like when the carousel rides in the square changed from fanciful unicorns to burly trucks, or the lines forming outside the seafood shop when sea urchins, a local delicacy, come in.
The food is marvelous, from freshly caught fish to just-picked fennel, but shopping is reminiscent of an earlier era in the States. We stop at the butcher for rotisserie chicken, the bakery for bread, a produce vendor for fruit and vegetables, the deli for salami and the seafood store for clams. It’s like an open-air market, only more spread out.
We mostly cook in, but adore going out for the week’s most important meal, Sunday lunch. Extended families crowd into restaurants wearing their furs and finery and sit 20 to a table, grandma at one end, the new baby at the other. The meal starts with raw seafood, proceeds to pasta, continues with an entree and ends three hours on with gelato and a liqueur. In the hubbub leading up to the outing, Monopolitani wish each other a good lunch. Ours is a still life, happy as we are to have left behind frenetic careers.
We are content to enjoy the measured pace Monopoli offers, walking along the Adriatic, attending local festivals, watching the fishing boats unload, and always having dinner together.
Friends smooth the way
We’ve lived here a year now, and we love it. But if there has been one constant frustration, it is the insanely maddening bureaucracy. Did I mention the utter inability of the Italian consulate in Miami to tell us what was necessary to apply for a visa, or the subsequent five weeks it took us to collect the documents? Did I tell you that you must apply in person?We frequently vacationed in Italy, so we had an inkling what we were in for there. But we couldn’t have known the authorities would require us both to fill out a 16-page form, in Italian, to apply for the permit necessary for a long-term stay. We couldn’t have known we would be turned away at first because our U.S. financial documents were not in Italian, nor that the Italian government wouldn’t approve our stay until the very day our visa expired, giving us just six weeks before we had to reapply for permission to stay another year.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Bari immigration office. Our lovely landlord spent hours helping us fill out the form. Her husband drove us to Bari and cajoled officials to see us promptly. (The crowd outside was daunting, much less the line inside.) This year, authorities required yet another form, and Maria, our magician of an Italian tutor, and her fiancé whisked us off to the proper office and sweet-talked the clerk into speeding our renewal.
The kindnesses don’t stop coming. Maria shared not just her contacts, but also her friends, and they’ve welcomed us warmly. They invite us to parties and shower us with favors like escorting us to the tailor or helping us register for Italian health care. We made friends with the staff at the bed-and-breakfast next door because we go to them so often for help. They lent us dishes for Thanksgiving dinner, accepted our packages while we were away and faxed Don a copy of his passport when he left it behind.
Happily settling in
To live in Puglia is to live out of time. The traditions of an ancient society remain, from families staying in place to fishing boats pulling into the harbor each evening. Life is built on personal relationships. Shopkeepers greet you by name. The same priest who confirms a child will likely preside at her wedding.
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And it all comes at a reasonable price. A two-bedroom apartment rents for about $650 to $1,300 a month, while home prices begin at about $165,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home of about 1,200 square feet in town. Monthly cellphone service starts at about $10, internet service at about $20. Good public health care is mostly free if you’re a legal resident, with fees for some examinations, like $33 for an MRI or $50 for a mammogram. Private doctors are more expensive but also more available and still reasonable by U.S. standards.
As much as we enjoy our days in Monopoli, we enjoy traveling, too. If we’re even slightly bored (Monopoli is a city of 50,000 with no major sights), we hop a train to a town we haven’t discovered. We can’t resist returning to beloved Italian destinations like Rome, Venice and the Chianti region, but we have visited Spain and Malta, too. Croatia and the Czech Republic are in our sights this year.
We intend to rent a car to explore the nooks and crannies of Puglia, an unspoiled land filled with impressive hill towns, ancient castles and hidden beaches. But the train system is surprisingly efficient. It is not, however, always modern. On one trip a man placed his foot on the armrest of the opposite seat and it promptly fell off. “Ah, Italia,” he said, shrugging, then reaffixed it.
If we’ve had a disappointment, it’s our inability to grasp the language, even with twice-weekly lessons. We find that most Monopolitani are reluctant to speak English, despite years of it in school. So Don and I struggle along, giving it our best shot and keeping Google translator at hand.
Yet, Puglia casts her spell. When we first arrived, we joked that Don would end up joining the old guys in the square for daily cards and I would linger with the ladies near the children’s rides. Now, that seems a pleasant fate.
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Appeared in the Apr. 24, 2017, print edition as ‘Love at First Sight: How We Ended Up Retiring in Italy.’