Journey to our new home

Well, this wasn’t anything like I imagined. The coronavirus hit Italy hard and the situation has changed daily since we received our visas. But now we are settling into our new home.

We received the visas on Thursday, February 27th and made reservations that day to Pisa. We got a great flight from Orlando to Houston to Munich to Pisa. Crazy to go to Houston, but we needed only 3 flights to go from one medium-sized airport to a small one in about 15 hours. We got business class tickets with points that allowed us to check three 70 pound bags each. That’s 420 pounds of stuff and we could each take two carryons. We wanted to maximize what we could bring along with us.

We were in Ohio at the time, visiting family and friends. And keeping an eye on the news of coronavirus in Italy. Some of the northern towns were locked down, but we felt confident because there were no cases in Lucca and few in Tuscany.

On March 4th, I heard from an American couple that lives in Lucca returned on a flight from the US through Pisa. No problems but they said the flight was quite empty. New problem… flights were being cancelled because there just weren’t enough people flying. Sure enough, on March 5th, we received an email stating that our flight was changed to land in Florence with a 5 hour layover in Munich. We were also watching the news about the growing coronavirus problems which were spreading throughout Italy. If we didn’t travel soon, we were concerned that our move would be delayed for months.

So we completed our packing and rented a big SUV. Derek took us to the Orlando airport and helped us get it checked in. The maximum weight for each piece of luggage is 70 pounds. Boxes 1 to 3 were 68 pounds, 4 and 5 were a bit lighter, and the suitcase was exactly 70 pounds. Jim did a great job of preparing all of the luggage. 🙂

Five of these big boxes plus lots more
We made it to check in station

No problems with our flight. We had a good night’s sleep flying from Houston to Munich. This flight was about half full, so clearly people are just deciding not to travel. Upon arrival in Munich, they took a quick look at our passports, didn’t ask any questions and didn’t even look at the visas! We spent the long layover in the Lufthansa lounge and were thankful for the clean and warm showers. The flight into Florence was less than half filled. We had our temperatures taken then juggled our massive luggage out to the front where a driver with a van was waiting for us. Some of the boxes were wet and starting to break down, but we squeezed them into the van and headed off to Lucca, less than an hour away.

We were greeted by Debora, but there were no hugs or the typical Italian cheek kisses. With help from the driver and Casper, a member of our church, we got all the luggage into our apartment. Even though there is an elevator, there are still several steps up and down to get to the main area of our apartment. Debora briefed us on the apartment and gave us a warning that she expected all of Italy to be “locked down” within a day or two. Yikes! We had several critical tasks to be done the next day…

Tuesday, March 10th was our first full day in Lucca. A new set of rules were in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging everyone to stay home. We weren’t allowed to leave Lucca without a good reason, pubs and restaurants closed at 6pm and everyone was to stay at least one meter apart. Despite these rules, we were able to go to the bank, cell phone store to order Wifi and get Italian phone numbers for our phone, buy essentials for the appartment and get some food into the house. We accomplished a lot and enjoyed our first dinner at home.

A simple charcuterie dinner

That evening we enjoyed the wonderful views from our kitchen and “altana” as the sun set. Life was going to be good in Lucca, once we get through all these new rules!

Sunset, taken with my cell phone, #nofilters
And getting darker.

Today (Wednesday, March 11th) we felt like pros at these new rules. We ventured outside of the walls to stop at an electronic store, similar to Best Buy, to buy a Nespresso machine. Then to a much larger supermarket. Because we must stay a meter apart, the stores limit the number of people inside. This creates queues outside of many stores and we waited 30 minutes to get into the large supermarket. We buy only what we can carry and Jim has carried a bunch the last 2 days!

Tonight we created a plan for tomorrow, but as we prepared to go to bed we learned of the next set of rules. Only food markets and pharmacies will be opened starting tomorrow. So we won’t be going to the bank or other “essential” errands that we planned, but will turn our focus on organizing our apartment and finish unpacking. And staying home.

We don’t regret coming to Italy. We have everything that we need. We feel safe and still healthy. We felt called to come to Italy and are still at peace with our decision.

Visas approved!

Visas. We received our visas on Friday, Feb 28th. We applied on Dec 24th, so it took about 2 months. Longer than the 3 weeks that I was expecting (because that’s what the website says!) but less than the 3 months that the consulate said that it could be. Some people are interested in the details of how we obtained our visas, so I plan to create a seperate posting for what we did and some lessons learned.

Next steps. We now have flights leaving Sunday, March 8th, arriving in Italy on Monday, March 9th. Most of our stuff is packed. We are taking 5 large boxes, 1 large suitcase, 2 carry-on rolling bags and 2 back packs. That’s about 500 pounds of stuff! The boxes allow us to maximize what we can bring with our luggage allowance. Time will tell whether they all arrive with us in Lucca! We should be staying in our apartment on that evening. Our apartment has most appliances and key pieces of furniture, but we’ll need to get kitchen goods, TV, computer, more linens, etc. We’ve prepared a shopping list to get the apartment in a livable state. 

Coronavirus. There have been no cases of coronavirus in Lucca. We are watching the US and Italian government websites for notices regarding travel impacts due to the coronavirus. Our flights to Pisa were changed to Florence because of the decrease in travelers. So we’ll have a one hour drive to Lucca, instead of 30 minutes. That’s OK!

Visits. We’ve had many family and friends say that they’d like to visit. We’d love to welcome you into our new home in Lucca! We have a guest bedroom that should be ready for visitors by late March. Just send me an email or PM once you have a good idea of a date. We already have a few trips planned so we want to be sure that your dates work. If you are traveling through Florence and can’t afford a few days in Lucca, let us know. We can easily take a train to Florence and spend a day with you. 

Time in Florida and Ohio. Our one month+ delay has given us extra time in Florida with Derek. We took the time to squeeze in a quick trip to WDW and Universal Studios. The newest rides (Star Wars and Harry Potter) are far better than previous rides – complexity, immersion, and the wow-factor. I hope to squeeze in one more kayak trip down the Ichetucknee River.  I was able to spend 4 days with Mickey, my sister, in Dayton. She and Vicki took me to lots of special places in Dayton/Cincinnati and we had a great time making new memories. Jim joined us for a day then we headed to Columbus to spend time with Jeff, the best man of our wedding, and Sharon, his wife. Time spent catching us with each other – and coordinating a meet-up in Florence for June. On the way to our next stop, we detoured to Tiffin, Ohio where Jim spent his high school years, we went to college, had our first kiss and got married. We didn’t exactly recreate the setting of the first kiss because it was just too cold and windy. And I do remember that from college as well! Then we headed up to Cleveland to visit Jim’s Aunt Lucy. She is doing well, despite several medical issues over the last few years. We were able to take her and a friend to church on Sunday. So we spent our one month+ delay preparing for the move and spending precious times with family and friend. God truly is good!

No Visa Yet :-(

In mid-November, we scheduled flights to Italy scheduled for Jan 31/Feb 1. The plan was we would apply and receive the necessary visas by then. As time has gotten closer, we decided to set Monday, Jan 27th as our “deadline” for the visas. If we don’t receive them by then or know that they are coming, we would cancel our flights. Well… it is Sunday, Jan 26th and we still don’t know when they are coming. So, we cancelled our flights today.

I’m disappointed but am also relieved. We still have a bunch to do to get ready for the move, so this gives us the time we need to do those things. And we’ll just reschedule our flights once we get the visas. Fortunately, we used points to book the flights, so we pay a low cancellation fee and get our points back.

Some general updates:

The visa application interview. I read a bunch of posted info about what happens during the visa application interview. It varied from answering a series of challenging questions to simply dropping off the application package. We were prepared for either – and ours was pretty much just dropping off the package. We had to sign a few more forms, make a few tweaks to the application form, get our fingerprints taken, and then left behind our two binders. It took less than 2 hours, which was mostly waiting in lines. So, we headed to Orlando to spend Christmas Eve at the Gaylord hotel. Lots of fun, including watching a few special Christmas shows, laughing with the Florida kids that were thrilled to be throwing snow bowls and sledding down an icy hill, and walking around to see all of their cool decorations. We also visited a street in Celebration, FL that goes crazy decorating – and have even been on the TV. We slept in on Christmas morning and had room service for breakfast. Very relaxing kind of Christmas. I took Jim to the airport for his return flight to Virginia and headed back to North Florida. Derek spent the day in a cave diving class so we had take-out Chinese for our Christmas dinner. Ho, ho, ho!

JoAn’s time in Florida. I’ve enjoyed my time in Florida, hanging with Derek and enjoying the beauty of the nearby parks. I’ve also had an opportunity to spend a bit of time with my three nieces, Britney, Kirstie, and Megan, and their delightful families.

Jim’s retirement. Jim’s last day of full-time employment was January 17th. He worked like crazy until the last minute, which is exactly what I expected. We had a very nice celebration at Pazzo Pomodoro, our favorite NoVA restaurant, with many friends. Rebecca Hall, our financial planner, kindly made all of the arrangements and provided us with this lovely celebration.

I am hoping that the title for my next block post is “We got our visas!”

Too much drama!

Getting an Elective Residency visa for Italy isn’t supposed to be easy. According to the Italian Consulate in Miami website “The elective residency visa is the most strictly regulated visa. Consular officers are required by law to investigate elective residency visa applications thoroughly.” Sounds encouraging, eh?

We completed the major tasks in Italy during our November trip: obtain a codice fiscale (similar to America’s Social Security Number), obtain a registered lease, get health insurance, and open an Italian bank account. The rest of the steps seemed comparatively easy: get an appointment at the Italian Consulate in Miami, renew our passports because they would be expiring too soon, gather all of the documentation required, and go for the interview. Hmpf…  not as easy as I imagined.

Get appointment: I had heard that it was difficult to get an appointment, but our lawyer said that he’d take care of it. I was disappointed on November 22nd to receive an email saying that the Miami Consulate wouldn’t allow this and we had to make the appointment ourselves. Yikes! I went online and got the next available appointment – for February 3rd. We planned to leave for Italy on January 31st and it typically takes 20 days after the interview to get the visa. Very disappointed, but I had a plan…  I would check daily for earlier appointments that open up due to cancellations. So, I checked many times per day. Supposedly the cancellations showed up at 6pm, but my frequent checking showed that they appeared randomly throughout the day. Oh, and the website is very unintuitive and cumbersome to use. Really hard on a cell phone – which I did a lot! When I would find an earlier appointment, I would excitedly take the next several steps to usually find out that the appointment was only for one person, not two. ☹ Finally, an appointment opened up for December 24th for two people. And I got it! Now all I needed was my passport…

Renew passports: we requested expedited service. Jim’s arrived quickly but mine did not. I finally received a letter stating that my picture wasn’t acceptable – no eyeglasses allowed anymore! Hmpf… why didn’t the guy who took the picture know that??? So, I had another picture taken and sent it back to the passport office, this time to the one in New Hampshire. Apparently bad passport applications get transferred there. ☹ They received it on a Monday, December 9th. I know this because I got a confirmation that it was signed for. I was starting to get anxious so I called them on Thursday to check on the status and they said that they were waiting on the picture. WHAT??? They sent a “message” to alert “them” to the situation. By Friday afternoon, I was able to confirm that they matched up my picture with my application. At this point, I began calling each afternoon. On Monday, I said that I needed it by December 23rd and they updated my file to indicate that and I paid for overnight shipping. On Tuesday, they said that it was actively being worked. I received it Wednesday, December 18.

Gather documentation: I felt like I was working a proposal… My BD friends will appreciate this…  Section L: requirements listed on Consulate website. Section M: gleaned from website, discussions with lawyers and other ex-pats, and reading lots of other blogs. I was to prepare two proposals (oops… I mean application notebooks): one for me and one for Jim. I was to prepare two backups to take to Italy. I bought four 1½ inch binders. I put all of the information in them with tabs separating each major and minor section. I prepared the cover sheets. We wrote our cover letters. Decades of experience was brought to bear on these notebooks! The only scary part is that Italian consulate personnel have very different perspectives from the US Government customers that I was used to…

Next step: Jim will be flying to Florida on Monday and we’ll attend the interview on Tuesday. My next blog post will either describe the wonderful Christmas present of a positive interview… or not!

Closer and Closer!

We had a great trip to Italy from October 31st to November 16th. We spent a few days in Florence, mostly relaxing and just enjoying this beautiful city. We did one walking tour which was called “Renaissance Intro Tour”; great tour, but I’d characterized it as the advanced course, not an introduction! We’ve visited Florence several times now, so this was great to pull together the bits and pieces of info that we have learned.

The view of Florence at breakfast at the top of our hotel
Ponte Vecchio at night with beautiful reflection on the Arno river

We headed to Lucca on November 5th, the day after Lucca Comic and Games ended. Try picturing hundreds of thousands of visitors dressed in fantastic costumes wandering through a medieval town… I’m looking forward to seeing it next year and taking lots of fun pictures.

We spent the majority of our time preparing for our move to Lucca. We saw 7 apartments, accompanied by realtors, lawyers, owners, and their colleagues. Jim sensed before the trip that I had my heart set on an apartment called “Il Pappagallo” and I simply spent the time comparing each apartment to it. So, we now have a lease for this wonderful apartment starting on February 1st! Click on the link to read a description (in English) and check out the pictures. Yes, there will be room for visitors!

Besides the apartment, we got our Codice Fiscale (similar to the USA’s Social Security Number), opened a bank account, and got health insurance. We could not have accomplished this without the help of our lawyers and realtor. Even with that help, other ex-pats were surprised that we got it all done in about a week.

To get a sense of the bureaucracy in Italy, here’s a description of what it took to open a bank account. Our lawyers recommended a bank and we took their recommendation. On Monday, we were accompanied by a lawyer and an accountant and met face-to-face with a bank officer. The majority of the time was spent with the lawyer and the bank officer speaking in Italian. He then collected some information from us that he hand-wrote on a piece of paper. He seemed concerned that we didn’t have our Social Security cards with us. ☹ We were told to return the next day. The next day, we met our other lawyer, the same accountant and a different bank officer. Lots of talk in Italian as we just sat there. Then he started printing…  about ½ inch of paper, small font, double sided. Then we started signing…  We could have bought a house in America with this amount of paperwork! He gave us our ATM/debit cards and showed us how to use their online banking. He seemed surprised when we said that we wanted to deposit some cash – because they close at 1:20pm for a few hours and it was already 1pm. They got us into the teller line just in time. So, we have an Italian savings account and an ATM/debit card.

We now have tasks to do in America to prepare for the visa: renew our passport, get FBI background checks, and gather a bunch of paperwork. We’ll take documentation from all of this to the Italian Consulate in Miami…  just as soon as we get our appointment. Unfortunately, the next available appointment is February 3rd and it will take weeks to get the visa through the approval process. I will be checking their website daily for earlier appointments – and hoping and praying that we get one in December or January!

Description of Lucca

I’ve tried to describe Lucca to many people but have struggled to capture the essence of it. So here’s a description of Lucca that I found at that does a good job:

“The walled city isn’t large. It takes twenty minutes to walk across it at a leisurely but steady pace. Don’t expect to maintain a steady pace, however, because although Lucca isn’t large, it is dense. It has been continuously inhabited for more than two thousand years; it was never abandoned and it was never destroyed. During most of its history Lucca thrived. It survived the Dark Ages intact and by the Early Middle Ages it was the capital of Tuscany. In the High Middle Ages it was the silk capital of Europe; its merchants and bankers preceded those of Florence and Siena. During the Renaissance Florence conquered the rest of Tuscany, but Lucca never fell. It did inevitably succumb to Napoleon but he prized the small republic sufficiently to bestow it upon his sister, Elisa, to rule as princess.

All of these periods survive today, in layers. When Lucca rebuilt it always built on what came before. No city better preserves its original Roman street layout. The medieval buildings were erected on Roman foundations and the Renaissance mansions assembled medieval houses and towers into grand edifices. Peel the plaster off a Renaissance building and you will usually find medieval brick underneath.”

During your visit, “try not to be overly ambitious. A visit to Lucca is often inserted into a hectic tour of must do’s and must see’s in more famous places, and Lucca is the perfect place to stop and catch your breath. Wander aimlessly a while, have a cappuccino, wander some more.”

We didn’t do a lot of sightseeing and I didn’t take any pictures at the bank 😉 but here are some random pictures that I took during this trip.

Lucca street at sunset
We wandered outside Lucca’s walls to find this pasta shop with the best variety of pasta in town. We chose Tortelli di Castagne, with a filling of chestnuts. Yum!

I’m now in Northern Florida, hanging out with Derek until our visa comes through. I hope to spend the time enjoying the pristine parks (“The Real Florida”), time with my son, a bit of a refresh on his house, and printing tons of information for our visa application.

I hope that you have a great Thanksgiving. I have so much to be thankful for, including having you follow along with me on this adventure!