At the end of the year, I think that it is natural to reflect on the year that is finished and look forward to the one just about to begin. I think that we all agree that 2020 is a year like no other in our lifetime. We watched movies and read stories about pandemics, but none of us had experienced one. Each of us experienced it differently, depending on our circumstances, our nature, our faith, and those around us. We had the additional unique experience of retiring and moving to a foreign land. So, how did we manage? Here are my reflections of our first ~10 months living in Italy during a pandemic.
Our new town: We had visited Lucca three times before we moved here, so we had a good idea of what to expect. Yet on a daily basis, I still see beauty that I missed before. The walls, the streets, the churches, the museums – none are world class (well, except maybe the walls) but all dazzle me! And they are right outside my door! There are some aspects of Lucca that are “on hold” because of the coronavirus, such as concerts, celebrations, shows, and most street performers. We are definitely looking forward to them restarting!
Our new home: We are very thankful to have a beautiful apartment in a 500-year-old “palazzo” with amazing 360° views of Lucca. It’s on the third, fourth and fifth floor, and thankfully we have an elevator. But within the apartment there are still four sets of stairs! The layout is sorta odd, undoubtedly due to the multiple renovations that have taken place. But we use every part of the apartment and it is serving us well. It was renovated about 12 years ago but we have experienced several problems, such as leaking windows, leak in bathroom leading to some mold, steam heat & hot water that stopped and started every few days, and electricity that would shut down if we used too much. We continue to work through the problems; each time learning more and more about how to get things done in this culture.
Our residency status: Before coming here, I generally understood the steps needed to become a permanent residence, but I underestimated the time needed to go through the steps and the number of times that I would need to copy our documentation (passport, codice fiscale, bank statements, birth certificates, …) and present it to a person who would painfully take us through the next step. Thankfully we were introduced to Tony, who helps us each step of the way. He tells us what the next step is, what documentation to bring, gets in line early for us, and talks to the person. For this, we give him €20. A very low price to pay for this valuable service! Jim has finished the process but I am still in the middle (due to an error that I made days after our arrival here). But it is nearly time for Jim to start renewing his “permesso di soggiorno”!
Our health: One of my goals for this year was to “Learn about the Italian medical system”. Well, I nailed that goal! Italy has a highly rated national health program that is generally covered by the taxes paid by residents. But in order to move here we need to get private medical insurance to have before we were able to sign up for the national program. We have been to the doctor several times each, gotten Xray’s, MRIs, blood tests, and Jim had a minor operation. So, yeah, I’ve learned a lot about the medical system… The best parts have been finding good doctors that can speak English (easily or with some difficulty), pharmacists who are really very helpful and relatively low price for services and medicines. But we are still waiting for reimbursement for that operation that occurred at the end of August. In general, our health is probably a lot better than in the past. We walk more, ride bicycles again, and eat fresh & healthy food every day. Just still too much food & wine, so we plan to work on that in 2021…
Our friends: Despite the coronavirus restrictions, we’ve been able to develop friendships with several Italians and American expats. There was an active group of English-speakers that would meet each Monday afternoon in Lucca. Given the coronavirus restrictions, they aren’t so actively currently, but we look forward to engaging with them in the future. So far, all of our Italian friends speak English fluently (or nearly so). I know several non-English speakers, but relationships develop slowly when the conversations can’t go very deep!
Our church: Lucca is sometimes called “The City of 100 Churches” but they are nearly all Catholic… Our faith is very important to us, but we are not Catholic. So, we were thrilled to find a protestant church in one of our early visits to Lucca. Once we arrived, we started attending regularly via Zoom or in person, depending on the coronavirus restrictions. The church and people are wonderful, but frankly we really struggled with the language. A few months ago, we decided that we would attend an English-speaking church in Florence (about an hour drive from here) once things re-open. In the meantime, we watch various church services online and share a Bible study with an American couple here. Maybe one day there will be an international church in Lucca. We are looking for volunteers to come to Italy and help start it!
Our language skills: We consider this our full-time job. I’ve been studying Italian off and on since 2017. I’m currently working with an online tutor two times per week and a local tutor once per week. I can comfortably talk with people in stores, ask for desired items, and pay for my purchases with a bit of chit-chat mixed in. Phone calls are still challenging but I was very pleased that I made a follow-up doctor’s appointment last week with no major problem. As part of our “integration agreement” to become permanent residents, we need to pass a language test at the A2 level. I hoping to complete the test this Spring or Summer. Jim essentially started over when we moved here. He works with an online tutor three times a week and I think that he is making great progress. His biggest challenge is that he depends on me to communicate in challenging situations!
Our transportation: We mostly stay in town given the coronavirus restrictions and our primary mode of transportation is walking and riding bicycles. But in late December we purchased a car, making local trips to doctors, supermarkets, and home improvement stores easier. We look forward to the time when we can drive around Tuscany and Italy. We can use our U.S. driver’s license with an International Driver Permit for one year after establishing our formal residency here. Then we need to get an Italian driver licenses. The test is difficult for everyone AND is in Italian. It typically takes expats 3 months of intense studying to pass it. And because we will be considered “new drivers”, we will get provisional licenses and can only drive cars with very small engines. Really… with 45 years of driving experience…
Our finances: We are doing ok, especially given that we retired several years before we expected to. We have a great financial planner who is guiding us through new situations for us. I’ve learned to deal with our bank better but we are still adjusting to managing our cash flow, utilizing debit cards, an Italian credit card, and occasional trips to the bank for withdrawals. Some of their rules still don’t make sense to me. The exchange rate dropped a lot but fortunately our planner suggested that we transfer several months of money before the big drop. I’m hoping for better exchange rates before March! I’ve also started to prepare for the Italian and US tax activities that we’ll tackle in early 2021.
Our retirement: I still can’t believe that we don’t have to go to work on Monday… or next week… or next month…
And what about 2021? Jim gave me a funny look when I said that we ought to come up with goals and objectives for 2021, but all of those years of annual planning cycles have trained me… I won’t bore you with all of the details but two that we are really looking forward to are:
- Travel within Italy, including Sicily wine tour and regions that we haven’t visited before
- Welcoming visitors, and helping them learn about the beauty of culture of Italy
We hope and pray that the coronavirus will come under control in 2021 and we will all have a good and healthy year!