Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What I love about my small town and living in Italy

Many of my friends back home in LA ask me what it is like living in Tuscany, especially in a small town. Chiusi has a population of approximately 9000 people and growing. This includes all the little surrounding towns, called “frazioni”. I have to say the one thing that I do love, that really puts a smile on my face is the fact that you know so many people and they know you….by name! Imagine going to the pharmacy and everyone greeting you by name and asking about your entire family, knowing all their names, where they go to school, what they did this summer. You cross the street to the bakery and they greet you too and tell you you don’t have to buy the bread today because your husband got enough this morning when he brought your son to buy a snack. Amazing. When you go to restaurants there is always someone you know sitting at the next table. This was so foreign to me being from LA. How often do you run into the same person twice in LA?? I mean you have to plan meetings weeks ahead, right?

Owning a home and living in Italy, especially in a small town keeps you closely tied with your neighbors. There is a certain warmth you get when your neighbour brings you “mimosa,” a yellow flower, every March 8th which is “giorno della donna” or woman’s day. My neighbour Anita not just brings me a flower, but an entire branch from her tree!! I now kind of expect it from her and if I don’t hear from her, I call up to find out if she is feeling ok!! What a nice, sweet lady. She will stop you every time your car passes her house and ask about the entire family and get angry if you don’t accept her chicken’s fresh eggs of the day! I call it my “drive through” only I get fresh eggs, onions, tomatoes. I adore Anita.

Moving to Tuscany and /or visiting Italy also means really savoring the new foods of each season. In LA I kind of just took for granted that everything at the supermarket was always available. Now I know there is a time to buy olive oil, walnuts, chestnuts, cantaloupe, apples, peaches and all sorts of delicious foods. Now I look forward to getting the new olive oil (olio nuovo) in which the olives I see from my windows are picked in November. I watch the farmers and see as they carefully pick each olive. No wonder why it is so expensive!

In this small town I have not yet met or know of another American who lives here year round. Sure there are many who come and go, spend holidays here and maybe months too but I am the only one that actually lives here. So I am treated special and you know what, I like it. I like this unspoken title of the American. I am also though very proud of where I come from, L.A. I am proud to be American and the USA will always be home sweet home. You don’t really really appreciate home until you are far from home. So right now I have the best of both worlds. I consider myself on an extended vacation in Tuscany but home is always L.A. When I tell those from Chiusi I am from Los Angeles, the usual response is “Wow.” When I tell my friends in LA I live in Tuscany their usual response is “Wow.”

Can I just say that parking is great in Chiusi. I have unfortunately adopted the Italian way of parking so give me a bit of space and I will stick my car in it in anyway, shape or form. Parking is always available and pretty cheap too. If there is no parking, just drive around the block a couple times and something will surely open up. For now I will take advantage of living in Italy and really appreciate all this small town has to offer!

Seasons and Closets while Living in Italy

Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, I was somewhat spoiled and oblivious to seasons, heavy clothing and the whole “cambio di stagione” or changing of seasons with regard to your closet. Let me explain. In L.A. most of us have closets that are built into the walls. Some people have walk-in closets and others have those where you just slide open a door and are arm’s length away to anything you want to wear. So my moving to Italy had an impact even on how I stored my clothes!

Let’s be honest here. Los Angelenos don’t really own winter wear. You may just put on an extra sweater if it is cold but who actually owns coats? Anyhow having said this, living in Italy has a totally different scenario. In Italy, be it the weather (colder than LA) or be it the great importance of how you look, Italians own every type of jacket for every type of weather. You have the light raincoat, the heavy raincoat, the light coat, the heavy coat, the bomber, the leather jacket, the leather coat, the ski jacket, and then each of these in various lengths and colors depending on your attire, shoes etc. So this is a big affair. These are just for outerwear. The same holds true for clothing. You have the light pants, heavy pants, jeans, skirts heavy or light, suits, shirts of all types, sweaters of all fabrics, weights, colors, etc.

Anyhow what happens when the seasons change?? If you move to Italy, you will see that there are no walk in closets, at least I have never seen any yet. Instead Italians have beautiful armadi or closets that are furniture pieces. These armadi have two levels in that the bottom level you put all the clothing of the current season except the long apparel like coats that go in another section of the armadio. On the top level you put all the apparel of the next or last season. This is where it gets tricky. Basically on the days you decide to do the change of clothing you take a long stick like instrument with a hook on the end (I am sure this has a name) and one by one like a balancing act, you put the hanger on the hook and place it ever so carefully on the rod above. I laugh when I think of this because you have no idea how many times the whole thing just fell on my head. I opt now to stand on a chair and do it the old fashioned way.

Oh don’t even ask me where Italians place their shoes??!! Again in LA you just place them on a shoe rack at the bottom of your walk-in closet or something similar. In Italy there is another piece of furniture called the scarpiera which is meant to hold shoes. However the space allotted to the shoes is somewhat small and does not hold ankle boots or regular boots nor my husband's shoes which are too big. So what do we do?? We have shoes everywhere, stacked ever so carefully as to not ruin them. I try to be somewhat organized in my stacking, with shoes for the current season at least in the front in view and others in the back. We are big on shoes but that is a different post altogether. Living in Italy means being creative with space and using it very wisely.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Air Travel With Children

I promised myself that I would write something informative and helpful about traveling with children since we have now done Italy - Los Angeles roundtrip four times with the children. Each time I learn more and more about making the trip more pleasant for me, my children and the fellow passengers. I have also learned a bit about jet lag with kids. Read on:


Clothing and food/drinks:

Make sure you bring a complete change of clothing for your children (pants, sweater, shirt, undershirt, underwear or diapers and socks) and an extra shirt for yourself. During my last trip and one half hour into the flight, my 3 year old son spilled a cup of water all over himself and thank goodness I had a complete change of clothing.

You will need to bring enough food, snacks and bottled water or formula to fill the tummies and also keep them busy. You could easily be stuck on board and not have them serving anything. Don't depend on the airline as you could be disappointed. Also their snack food is usually not nutricious. Don't forget their sippy cups and /or baby bottle. For very young children you will need homogenized jars of fruit and meat dishes and whatever he or she usually eats at home. Other good snacks for travel are fruit, crackers, cookies and hard lollipops (I like Sees candies) for sucking on during landing. Call ahead to get childrens' meals as aside from being more kid friendly, they serve them first!

To prevent ear pain during landing I used on numerous occasions the following trick: bring a dropper and have handy some tea (sugared) in a bottle. When you are beginning the descent, start giving your baby the drink a drop at a time with the dropper. He or she is forced to swallow and the movement will pop their ears so as to prevent pain. Continue this until your own ears have popped too. I learned this from a German couple on a flight home one year. Their child had no problems while mine refused to suck, drink or use a pacifier. In the end mine cried the whole time due to the pain.

Toys and Activities:

Make sure you bring a variety of toys or activities for your child. You cannot always depend on the monitor in front of you since sometimes they are not working properly. A portable dvd player is great as well to see his or her favorite movies.

Be Early

Make sure you get to the airport at least 3 hours early for international flights to secure your seats. It is still a mystery to me why seat reservations are not respected but they are not so get there early and be persistent that your entire family sits together. I don't like bulkhead seats for the simple reason that those arm rests do not lift up. These arm rests, my friends, are lifesavers as you will need them to rise in order to lay your angels down when they are sleeping.

Jet Lag
Children are much more adaptable than adults. I don't believe in keeping the kids from sleeping if they are tired so they will sleep through the night sooner. I believe that if they are tired, they should sleep. You too should try to get a nap in while they sleep as the nights can be brutal otherwise. Know that it takes a full week to get over jet lag (Italy -Los Angeles trips) so be patient and hang in there.

I cannot say if it is better or worse to travel after a child is a certain age. It really depends on a lot of factors and each child is different. My oldest son (3) now is a great traveler and he adapted well in both places to the time and climate differences. For him it is all a wonderful adventure and is already asking about his next trip. So don't put off traveling because of the kids. Try to make it the best possible trip and just be prepared. Buon viaggio!!
As Featured On Ezine Articles

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Routines and Living in Italy

Having a family in Italy is no easy chore. Unless you are some kind of a true aristocrat and can afford a live in babysitter, house manager and a live in cook, the routines in Italy can kill you.

Pane, Pane, Pane

In this culture it is a crime not to have fresh bread everyday. This means that someone in the household has to go to the local bakery everyday to buy just enough bread for the day. It is truly an art in knowing exactly how much bread you need for the day. Do not even think about using the bread the next day, for aside from being frowned upon by your now spoiled husband and children, one day old bread in Italy is rock hard. So for those of us who do not have the art down, we end up with old bread on a daily basis. I cannot grate the bread without grating my fingers and throwing away food for me is truly a sin. So I am lucky enough to have “Anita” , a farmer who lives next door and who happily accepts my bread for her chickens and pigs.

This has to be the number one daily cause of anxiety for me. There are only a few full day programs in Italian schools, which means no cafeteria! When I found out that children come home for meals everyday, I nearly had a heart attack. “Ok let’s get this straight,” I asked around, “you mean my whole family comes home for lunch everyday?” Yikes! For my American friends, let me explain that this is not just getting sandwiches at a Subway or chicken at Pollo Loco. This is setting the table with a tablecloth, silverware, usually a pasta dish, a second course meat or fish dish, veggies, and yes that x!!!%&(/&(R fresh bread ! This in itself is one good reason to move back to the USA! So if you work from home like I do, it means taking off a good two hours for the whole ordeal and then waiting for dinnertime when it all pleasantly takes place again. No wonder why productivity in Italy is so low.

Still want to move to Italy?? Read on…

Trash & Mail
Ok since we are complaining, let me tell you about the trash system. Aside from being extremely expensive as far as yearly fees, we do not have anyone picking up our trash nor is there a trash bin within a logical radius. Trash must be divided (this is a great thing) for recycling and you do not have your own trash bins. They are usually a few blocks away and each neighbourhood shares one or more. So you have to bring your own trash already divided daily to these bins.

As for mail, I can never figure out why the postal worker drops off your mail at your house but cannot pick it up. So you have to physically bring your mail to the post office for delivery.

Kilowatts & Storms

I have gone through 3 telephones and 2 television sets in the past 4 years due to thunderstorms. Why is it that my appliances get burned during them here and not at home in the USA? I know I should not be comparing.

Each family has the right to 3 kilowatts of power. This means that you cannot have two major appliances running at the same time or you will be shorted. Don’t even think of using your hairdryer while the washing machine is going!! Multi tasking is just not big in Italy!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Specialty- Vacation Tours -In Italy

Once you have done the usual Italy vacation itinerary with tourist stops of Rome, Florence, Venice etc- the following visits to Italy could be spending more time in one particular area and doing a specialty tour.

Let's explore these. Specialty tours are short vacations based around a paticular hobby or activity. These can be formal as taking a course in cooking, jewelry making, ceramics/pottery or more informal as doing an outdoor/adventure tour like biking, walking, or farming. Other tours are wine tours and shopping tours. The tours nowadays can be as personalized as one wants with only a small group of friends, a couple or total strangers sharing a common hobby.
What better way to spend your time then in a beautiful country, studying or doing what you like best or doing something you have never done before but always wanted to??

For cooking courses see http://www.cooking-vacations.com/ and http://www.tastytuscany.com/

For wine tours check out http://www.chianticlassico.com/ for a list of cantine in the Chianti area (Tuscany)

For walking tours- http://www.walkingvacations.com/ and http://www.clubtoscana.com/

For biking- http://www.clubtoscana.com/

If a school or a program does not already exist, why not put together a program yourself?! In other words get a group of friends together who share a love for the outdoors and organize a walking tour in Umbria for instance. You can rent a villa as a group and contact the Umbria tourist board for walking / hiking itineraries. The possibilities are endless.

There are so many different types of vacations offered nowadays in Italy. Why not do a shopping vacation and outlet shop? There is nothing better than going home with an original Armani suit or Prada bag that you picked up at a designer outlet. Some great outlets to try are in the Incisa area of Tuscany. Here you can find all the major designer brands at discounted prices. Look out for a future post on bargain shopping!

Why not do a pamper yourself vacation and spend a week at a luxury spa in the beautiful Tuscan hills? Fonteverde in San Casciano (http://www.fonteverdespa.com/) or Bagni di Ripoli in Ripoli are good chocies. I have been to both and while Fonteverde is definitely more luxury oriented, I liked the rustic atmosphere of Bagni di Ripoli. A great list of spas in Tuscany can be seen on http://www.termeditoscana.com/

I believe these types of vacations are great for couples, families, singles and seniors. They allow you to do what you want to do in the incredible surroundings of Italy. You are learning, meeting new people, soaking up the local environment. You really do go home energized, stimulated by all you have seen and done.You are ready to face the world, prepare for your next off the beaten path vacation!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Tuscany

Here is a really short post just to tell you that sometimes I will admit I get carried away with the daily routines and forget about how really lucky I am to be living here. Yes there are daily and annoying routines here too and it not all about sipping Chianti and listening to Andrea Boccelli all day long.

Sometimes when things get to me I have to remember what it is I came out here for in the first place. So I did something I hardly never do anymore....look around at the beauty of Tuscany which surrounds me everyday. Check out the bottom of my blog so you too can see a breathtaking view of olive trees and soft sloping hills and hopefully it will put you too in a pleasant mood!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Employment - in Italy

Ok the logical question before someone decides to move to Italy is will I be able to find work? And of course it would be wise to think about this before actually moving to Italy! I will tell you a little of what I learned during my ten years in Italy with regard to work.

Teaching English

Yes there is always a great demand no matter where you go in Italy to learn English from a native speaker. You can enlist yourself with one of the many English schools, teach privately, teach Business English, offer conversational English. No matter what town or city you reside in, English is always in demand. Although you may not like or want to teach English, it is a good way to meet people and network.

In the very early years I taught Business English to a subsidiary of Coca Cola in a tiny town in Abruzzo. If you do this privately you can purchase your own teaching books online or at any good bookstore in Italy. You may decide that it would be easier to work for a private school like the British Institute or similar schools. With internet you can research the top schools in the town you will be residing in and just send them your c.v. with any teaching experience you may have.

Interpreting and Translation

Italy is made up of small and large companies, some family owned and run and others large corporate-like companies, depending on the city you are in. Nowadays all companies do some work with foreign companies and yes the common language is English. So you can get a list of the companies in your town, get a good c.v. and contact each company individually. Hint: in Italy a personal visit is always preferred to receiving a letter through the mail. Plus you don't want to risk your c.v. being trashed by some envious secretary. Sorry but been there, done that. So since image is everything in the bel paese...get dolled up and look as professional as possible, get a good c.v. in hand (translated if possible in Italian) and start visiting each company and tell them about yourself.

Many companies exhibit at tradeshows and may need a native English speaker to work the tradeshow with them. These jobs usually pay pretty well, should pay your transportation, hotel, meals and hours working at the show.

You may offer the companies the possibility of translating all comunication they receive and send the customers, suppliers etc and could even suggest handling some clients once you learn more about the company.

Working from Home
Nowadays through the internet one can become creative to find work. There are many publications for instance that pay freelance writers to write about their living in Italy. You can also offer translation services (Italian to English) if your Italian is good enough. You can become an agent or representative for Italian companies wanting to export abroad. Perhaps you have some good contacts in your home country that you can start networking with and start an export business (foods, clothing, shoes, etc.). Ebay is also a great way to earn extra cash. Why not scout Italian companies for their overstock and start putting those items on the internet for sale. Maybe you can even have your own website and just sell off your own site directly from the factories. I think the possibilities are endless.

Employment with an Italian Company
Many ask me how they can be hired by an Italian company. Here things work similarly as in the United States. I would begin if possible to have at least one contact name in the department you are interested in in that company or at least a contact with the company. This will help you get your foot in the door for a first interview. Unfortunately it is very much who you know and not what you know for many companies out here. Luck plays a huge factor too as I was lucky to contact a company at the right time (they happened to be looking for a native English speaker with a MBA in marketing). So you can try cold calling if you cannot get a contact name. The best type of contract to get with an Italian company is called "a tempo indeterminato". This is the most secure and you have the right to all the benefits (sick leave, maternity leave, vacation,etc). Nowadays it is very difficult to get this type of contract so consider yourself lucky if you are offered it. If you are confused about what they are offering you, talk to an accountant (comercialista) that can explain to you exactly what the terms are.

I will be honest that finding serious employers in Italy is not an easy task. My advice is to get as much information in writing as you can about the terms of employment, your responsibilities, etc and talk to as many people as you can about it. Be smart and shrewd and you will not be taken advantage of. Good luck!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Finding and Buying Property - in Italy

Well, here it is: my first post on my first blog. This is a first of a multi part series on finding property in Italy and everything related to moving to Italy. I will not go into detail on how I got here since you can read about that in future posts and on my profile. Instead let me tell you what I learned about finding and purchasing property in Italy.

How long will it take to find your home?
Let me first say that finding the right property can take as long as you want it to. I mean it can happen even before you leave your home country with a really good agent or it can take years. Personally it took us about one year to find our home and we were already living in Italy. I have friends that found their dream home in their first visit and others that are still looking after years.

Pinpointing the Region

Italy is made up of many different regions that differ in food, climate, way of dressing, employment opportunities, etc. I am not going to go into detail here as it would be way too lengthy. The most popular regions these days among foreigners to buy property are Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, Abruzzo, and Puglia. But let’s not forget the Lake region of Como ..made famous of course by an American celebrity (don’t know if I can name him George C.). Anyways I have ranked them in order of popularity and price. Tuscany has always been the most popular and property prices reflect this. Just in the recent years Abruzzo and Puglia have increased in popularity due to very affordable prices.

You really need to ask yourself if you want to live in the countryside, in the city, near the sea, near the mountains. Maybe you are not sure and so I would really recommend you pick a few regions and visit them. You may decide you are not so keen on living near the mountains since the winters can be brutal for instance. Next after deciding on the region you need to decide on the city or town in that region.

Once you have chosen the region it would be wise to do some good research through the internet. There is a really great site called www.casa.it that although it is in Italian, provides invaluable information on names of real estate agencies, their email addresses, phone numbers and great photos and data on property for sale. I used this site repeatedly. The site is categorized by region. Although agencies request 3 percent commission I highly advise going with an agency instead of buying property directly from the owner. It will alleviate a lot of hassles later on. Remember that the same property can be with multiple agencies. I contacted ALL the agencies in the town I was interested in so they all knew what I was looking for. Also be very specific in what you are looking for as the agencies can really waste your time . I can also suggest you check out the agencies of www.toscanahouses.com (Tuscany), and www.immobiliareilcastello.com (Umbria) which I looked at during my search.

Type of Property
Ok here things get a little tricky so let me help you out. You really need to know what type of property you want. Do you want an apartment (apartamento), a villa, a farmhouse (casale). Do you want it to be restored (ristrutturato), in need of restoration or both? Do you want little or a lot of land (terreno)? Do you want a pool (piscina)? Do you care if you are near a railway track, the freeway, on a hill, in a valley? I can go on and on. Only after seeing many properties did I realize I had to be very specific in talking to the agencies. My personal suggestion is to ask yourself what you will be doing with this property? Will you be living in it fulltime or on vacation time? Will you be flipping it or renting it out? If you plan on renting it out when you are not in it I suggest you purchase something rural like an apartment in a restored farmhouse or an entire restored farmhouse, if money permits of course. Unless you have a lot of time, money and patience, I do not suggest you take on restoring it yourself.

Making an Offer, The Bank, The Notaio

Once you have found the property that really suits you, you can make the offer. It is difficult for me to tell you how much that offer should be in relation to the asking price but after you have seen enough properties you can tell whether or not you should be getting a discount. A contract to bind the parties is called the Preliminare di Compravendita which outlines woh the two parties are, the price agreed upon and the breakdown of how and when the amount will be paid. Usually at this first contract a deposit of about 10 percent is given to the seller of the house.

I should tell you that you do not need to have citizenship nor residency to buy a house in Italy. However I strongly recommend that you try to get residency because property taxes for your first home in Italy are much lower for those with residency. To get residency however you have to prove that you live in the house year round. The urban police (vigile urbano) actually comes by your property to make sure you live there.

Once you have found a bank that you want to work with (the agency should be able to help you with this), you will need to find a notary (notaio). Here also the agency should be able to help out. Mortgages are much shorter than in the United States and the average mortgage is 15 years.

Taking the Plunge

Finding and buying property in Italy is not as simple as it seems and I have given an overview of the first steps. I have to admit that for me it was quite a challenge and I did almost lose my patience on more than one occasion. Now I just laugh at all those really bizarre incidents like trekking in the snow to see a house completely isolated in the mountains and far from being ready to live in. This after telling the agency I want a home as close to the town as possible! We saw all sorts of properties and met all sorts of people. It was definitely a learning experience but in the end worth it as I love the views of olive trees and sunflowers (the reason we got this home) that I have every morning upon awakening. I await to meet you here as my new neighbors!