Our New Life: Living in Italy

by John Genzale

How I learned to stop hopping continents and savor a slower, simpler life in central Italy.


"In the end, you can't realize your dream until your future becomes more important to you than your past."

“Here begins a new life.”

Those words, shamelessly stolen from Dante, are the first ones I wrote in the journal my son gave me to record my transition to a new life—the sweet life—in central Italy. Though I stopped working regularly a few years ago, my new job in my adopted country is to make those pages dance to the tarantella in my heart. It’s truly a labor of love.

I have lived in a little Umbrian town, Citta di Castello, for nearly two months now with my wife, Jenny. We came here not to forget life, but to live it. I write a couple of regular columns, do a little work for a book publisher and take selected freelance gigs. But mostly I enjoy the wonders of a rich culture in a fascinating country. It’s where we fit. Where we can discover, explore, imagine, dream and fill the pages of our journals.

I have loved all things Italian since my childhood in an overcrowded New York apartment. My grandmother and I played cards incessantly—a game she imported called “Scopa”—while she reminisced about her youth in Sicily. My comprehension of her Italian dialect was rudimentary, but there was no mistaking the pleasure she took recounting life in a country with boundless passion for art, history, culture, food and, above all, family.

My grandmother’s generation regarded travel as a privilege; boomers see it as a birthright. We are the first truly mobile generation, able to hop oceans in the time it takes to play a game of Risk. So we went exploring. We checked off countries, even continents, saying, “I’ve been there.” We snapped pictures to prove it. We acquired territory—and experiences—much as we acquired possessions. After all, we did author the bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

New Definitions of Freedom

But we are also a maturing generation, much more interested today in quality than quantity. If it’s true that boomers spent the first half of their lives gathering things, now, firmly in the second half, we are getting rid of things. Owning a car once represented freedom to me. Now, not owning a car does. With liberty comes discrimination. By getting rid of unnecessary things, we become better able to save and savor those that are most important to us.

So it is with geography. We traveled the world for travel’s sake. But, in the process, we defined our passion. We appreciated it all, but we made special note of those places that touched our souls. For me, it was Italy. I no longer wanted to fill albums with pictures of exotic places; I wanted to fill my senses with the experiences of one place. I no longer wanted to check off lists; I wanted to go to Italy and stay there.

So every time I managed to save up the loot or legitimize an assignment, I returned to Italy . . . again and again. Eventually, with New York rents being what they are, with the geographic freedom the Internet affords and with my four-time-a-year Italian habit, I decided I could save the airfare and live the dream.

But the trick isn’t getting there physically; it’s getting ready mentally. Even when you’re convinced that your special place fits you better than any other, you may have to learn a new language, accept new customs and make new acquaintances. We instinctively feel that miles diminish memories and friendships. Of course they don’t, but that’s a tough one. In the end, you can’t realize your dream until your future becomes more important to you than your past. And if you get there, you must be true to your heart.

Living in ItalyLiving in ItalyJenny and I took an exploratory trip last fall and found out, as we suspected, that living in Italy was really in our hearts. The question of where was made more difficult because she fell in love with every village we visited, the next more than the last. And the question of how was imponderable as we boarded the plane for our return to New York.

We had heard about an apartment in Citta di Castello—one of the places atop Jenny’s list—that was often rented for limited periods. It was one of those Italian things: We knew someone who knew someone. The important thing was that a short-term lease would allow us to dodge a long-term commitment, sight unseen, from the other side of the Atlantic.

A Simpler, More Satisfying Life

Citta di Castello (pronounced Chee-toddy Castello) is a fair-sized village of 38,000 in the Umbrian heartland of Italy near the Tuscany border that we had visited many times. We could visualize its main piazza, its 15th-century clock tower, the shops on the main corso and the cafes just a few steps from the well-appointed and roomy townhouse. We e-mailed the owner. He sent pictures, provided a web address and gave us a description of the townhouse, which occupies a space three times the size of our New York apartment—for a third of the rent. Our dream of moving to Italy suddenly became manageable.

The pace of life is slow in Citta di Castello and its people are warm. Shops in the quaint village close at midday, but they reopen by 4 p.m. The contadini, working-class townsfolk, still gather at 6:30 each evening in the main piazza just below our windows for the passeggiata, a stroll where they exchange pleasantries of the day.

Every visitor to Italy raves about the wine and the food, but few can tell you why it is so rich and satisfying. My own very unscientific theory is that food is raised, grown and prepared with a passion that links today’s Italians with their ancestors.

It’s that appreciation among Italians for the simple things that is so appealing. Perhaps at another age I wouldn’t find it so. In America life revolves around professional ambitions and the question of how many; living in Italy it revolves around sensual pleasures and the question of how good. And that just fits so well with where I am.

But the thing we find most appealing about life in this Umbrian village is its proximity to the rest of Italy. If you aimed a pin at the center of an Italian map, it would land close to Citta di Castello. That’s an important feature. Our problem is that we love all of Italy—its big cities and its small hamlets, its terraced hills and its walled towns. Our self-appointed mission is to explore every corner of what we believe to be the most civilized country, looking for la dolce vita in the perfect Italian village, and to write in the journal my son gave me the next chapter of our new life.


by John Genzale | Thursday, April 30, 2009 | Career Change, Dream Careers, Living in Italy

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