You’ve got your heart set on a fabulous retirement location in Tuscany—Florence, Lucca, Pienza, Cortona, Siena, Montepulciano—and you’re ready to take the big step.
Congratulations! I did it a couple of years ago, and I’ve never been happier. My hometown, Florence, offers great food and wine, fascinating tours and other cultural events, and an active ex-pat community. As busy as I am here, I don’t have TIME to grow OLD!
Unfortunately, making Italy—or any other European country—your home is not a matter of simply packing your bags and boarding a plane. To stay longer than three months, you need a Visa granted by the Italian government. Years ago, it was possible to stay three months in a European country, cross the border to another country for a day and a night, and then return for three months. This isn’t allowed anymore. Today, you can stay for three months in any European country without a Visa, but after that you have to leave Europe and stay out for three months before you can return. Three months in, three months out—that’s not only inconvenient, it’s expensive!
So you need a Visa. What else? Following are five steps to help smooth your passage to Italy.
1. Enroll in an Italian language course
Wherever you live now, enroll in an Italian class before you go and continue to take classes throughout your first few years in Italy. It’s harder for us to learn a language when we’re older, but certainly not impossible. Most of my friends over 60 here in Florence are enrolled in some kind of Italian class. The classes are easy to find, and they range in price from free (classes offered to immigrants by the Italian government) to exorbitant. You can also find one-to-one tutors to chat with casually over lunch or a coffee, usually for about $25 an hour.
When my sister and I started to visit Italy years ago, I took a Berlitz Italian course in Austin that gave me a good foundation in the language. It was expensive, but I considered it an investment in my future. After that, I Goggled Italian language classes and found the Italian Cultural Association of Austin. The small classes and reasonable prices were a surprise and made me feel like I was not only reinforcing what I had already learned, but also building on what I knew to become a better reader, speaker, and listener. One summer when I visited my daughter in Asheville, North Carolina, I Goggled Italian language classes and found several options. In Asheville NORTH CAROLINA! Just goes to show that with a little time invested on your computer you can find classes where ever you are.
However, if you’re convinced you’re not good at languages or that you’re just not interested in spending time learning a new language, don’t let that stop you from retiring in Italy. Depending on the city, you can get by with little or no Italian at all. In Florence, there are many ex-pats who’ve been here for years and don’t speak Italian. In most restaurants, museums, art and clothing boutiques, the clerks speak English (in varying degrees). There are two huge English churches here (Episcopalian and Anglican), two theatres that run English-language films, and a number of news outlets that sell English-language newspapers and magazines.
Keep in mind, however, that the smaller the town you choose to make your home, the less you can depend on getting by as an English-only speaker.
2. Establish connections
This step is critical. It will help you throughout your relocation process.
As soon as you decide you want to make the move, find other ex-pats (ideally in the city you want to make your home) online and begin a dialogue. Do a blog search for people who are here recording their experiences. I met several people through their blogs here in Florence long before I arrived. Two of my contacts have become my best friends. Now that I have my own blog, I’m meeting people like you who find me online and contact me. Because of the helping hand I got when I moved here—and because I like meeting new people—I’m always happy to respond to queries.
Another way you can establish connections is to get involved in forums devoted to ex-pat exchanges. Expats in Italy is a fabulous resource that allows you to ask questions ranging from “What’s the best way to get my pet snake to join me in Montalcino?” to “Do the Italians really eat pizza with a knife and fork?” There is no cost to join the site, and the potential for the help it can provide is priceless.
3. Find an apartment and buy an airplane ticket
You need to do this BEFORE you apply for a Visa because your Visa application will require both a plane ticket and a signed contract for a place to live. The apartment contract should cover six to nine months, and a plane ticket should have a return date as far out as you can get it, which is about eight months with most carriers.
Apartments are not hard to find, but you want to do a good deal of research before you make a deal with the owner or agent for the property. I have always found great vacation apartments on the Internet, and that’s how I found my first place here in Florence. Make sure the Website gives a clear indication of the location of the apartment, and ask your contacts (see Step 2 above) if it’s a safe area with good transportation available. Here in Florence, I feel totally safe all the time, but there are dicey areas I would avoid after dark. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in those areas!
Another word of advice: Not all of the apartments you find will rent long-term. Some will rent for only a few days, some for only a few months. All you need is one for six to nine months to begin. This way, you have a home while you look around for something you may like better.
4. Apply for permission to stay.
Within eight days of your arrival in your home city, you must apply for a Permesso di Soggiorno. For this document, you’ll need to go to the local Immigration Services office to apply. The required paperwork is about the same as for the Visa, so save all of that paperwork. The application is merely a formality—no one with a Visa is ever turned down—but it must be done within the specified timeframe.
When you submit all of the paperwork to the post office, you’ll be given a time to appear at the questura (the police office) for a brief interview. They’ll take your fingerprints again and then tell you that you will be contacted by phone or text when the Permesso is ready to be picked up.
5. Meet people!
Now that you’re all registered with the city and moved into your apartment, start meeting people. Invite your online contacts for a coffee or lunch or an aperitivo. Sign up for tours and language courses. Find a bar you like for your morning coffee and get to know the barista. He or she may not speak English, so practice your Italian. You’ll be surprised how pleased Italians are that you want to learn their language.
For the first year I was here, I tried not to turn down any invitation or opportunity to meet people or learn about my community. It was exhausting, but in the end I felt like I belonged in my neighborhood. I knew the city and many of the wonderful people here, and I was speaking reasonably good Italian. My goals for Year Two are to continue to improve my Italian and to get out of the city more, to explore the wider community around me. Life is good.
Happy retirement! I look forward to seeing you here under the Tuscan sun.