Rolling hills swathed in mist and vineyards, sparkling seas, a slower pace of life, the food. Oh the food! Huge red tomatoes, pasta drizzled with olive oil, gelato, espresso. What's not to love about Italy?!
It's no wonder that Ashley Bartner moved there from the USA in her 20s, as soon as she could after first visiting the country on her honeymoon. Now Ashley and her husband Jason help other people do the same.
As well as running La Tavola Marche, a beautiful farm, inn and cookery school in Le Marche, Ashley organises workshops about moving to and retiring in Italy.
We talked to Ashley about the practicalities involved in making the transition to living in Italy full-time, from house hunting and negotiating to assimilating. She had plenty of advice on how to do 'la dolce vita' - smartly.
Before you do anything else…
Learn Italian. It will make everything else so much easier. The moment Ashley and her husband Jason decided to turn their dream of living in Italy into reality, they started learning the language. Next on the list was writing a business plan and researching where they wanted to live.
How to choose where to live
Ashley advises putting a driving map of Italy on your wall and looking at it every day as you think about what’s important to you.
How do you see your day-to-day life in Italy? Are you browsing galleries, drinking cappuccinos and watching the world go by in a piazza, or are you growing your own veg and truffle hunting in the countryside? Do you want to be close to an airport, or the sea? Are you in Italy full time or part time?
The region of Le Marche worked well for Ashley and Jason for several reasons. It’s relatively inexpensive, especially when compared with its better-known neighbours Tuscany and Umbria. The couple had spent all their savings on their honeymoon, so the value for money offered by Le Marche was a good fit for their business plan of promoting an up-and-coming destination. They also loved the area for its position. It’s close to the Adriatic Sea and the mountains. It’s 2.5 hours from Florence, 3 hours from Rome and on the way you can go through Bologna.
They also had plans for a cookery school – Jason is a chef – so the food was an important aspect. In Le Marche, they have access to fish from the Adriatic, wild boar, mushrooms and truffles. But it was only on their research trips, when they met the warm people living there, that they were fully convinced this was where they wanted to be.
In fact, every winter Ashley, Jason and their neighbours get together in their kitchen to prepare cappelletti in (little pasta hats filled with meat). Recipe here.
Then start house hunting
This is where your efforts to learn Italian first start to pay off. Ashley says it’s better to use Italian house-hunting websites as some places tend to have ‘special’ prices for Americans. A trusted agent to help you in Italy can also work wonders.
Ashley and Jason visited Italy four times, exploring different regions and properties, before they found their home.
6 Italian real estate websites recommended by Ashley:
What is the cost of living?
Of course, it depends where you are, but in Le Marche, a coffee is around 1 Euro and you can expect to pay around 30 Euros for a nice fish meal with antipasti and local wine on the Adriatic coast. Electricity is expensive compared with the US.
Understand the necessary bureaucracy
To start a business, you’ll need a ‘codice fiscale’, which is like the USA’s Social Security Number of the UK’s National Insurance Number.
It also helps to start a relationship with the bank as soon as possible. You can expect opening a bank account to take about a day, require around 18 signatures and near 5 hours of waiting.
For Ashley, the hardest part of setting up a life in Italy was obtaining a self-employed visa, as an American. To start a business in Italy you need to have a property, in order to have an address for your business. The self-employed visa lasts 1 year after which you reapply. Once you are in Italy for 5 years, you can do a longer renewal process. Different rules and visas apply to those in the Schengen Zone.
Once you are in Italy and you have your property, you can go to the local commune, which is like the local registry. You have to apply for residency to get car insurance and have access to the national health service.
Speaking of the health service… Ashley says that, unlike the US where hospitals are like hotels and everything is done by the chart, in Italy the doctors actually look at you, talk to you and take the time to answer questions and do extra scans if they haven’t seen you in a while.
One more piece of advice – Ashley recommends finding “a shark” to help navigate through the bureaucratic waters of Italy. She was lucky to find Fabio, a commercial, tax and business advisor who helped them understand how everything works.
How to assimilate
For Ashley, who says she’s chatty by nature, making friends was surprisingly easy. After eight years in New York City, Ashley and Jason barely knew their neighbours; in Le Marche, it felt like there was a town meeting to announce their arrival!
“We knew it would be important to assimilate, but we were overwhelmed by how welcoming everyone was.” Their neighbours taught them how to live in the countryside, and how to be good neighbours.
Keep putting yourself out there, even if it’s hard at the beginning. Offer English lessons in exchange for Italian lesson, join the local choir or cycling club, try to connect in any way you can. Go to the local café regularly, to make it clear you’re not just another tourist.
To get a feel for Italy, Ashley recommends the book Italian Neighbors (“a beautiful love story of the relationship between an expat and the locals and how they help him become Italian”) and film Pane e Tulipani (Bread & Tulips).
You might also be interested in these Tips for embracing the ex-pat life