A New Life in an Old City
My husband and I are not trust-fund babies, nor self-made millionaires, but like many, we dreamed of living outside the U.S. In August of 2001, after much discussion, research, and planning, we boarded the airplane from Houston, Texas with only the allowable two bags each. We arrived in Rome, Italy the following day to begin what we refer to as "The 21-Month Plan."
When I first met my husband-to-be, I overheard him musing about quitting his job and living in a box on a beach in Mexico. I was immediately skeptical, but secretly intrigued. Over time, we discovered we had a common interest in living abroad and learning another language. Fast-forward two years and we are enjoying our honeymoon in Mexico. Don't be alarmed, he did spring for a hotel suite.Before we got married, we discussed the "box on the beach" idea endlessly. The "box" was upgraded to a more stable dwelling and European countries were included in our pool of choices. We had enough money saved to bum around for a while, but then what? John is 43 and I am 39; too old to throw caution to the wind, too young to retire. We wanted to live somewhere and not feel like tourists in city after city. I wanted to know my neighbors and understand what their lives were like. We needed a plan that would allow us to experience another culture, but also prepare us for future earnings.
John spent 25 years in television news and was ready to build on his experience and try something new. He decided to continue his education and to study International Affairs. That decision was the catalyst that made us realize we could move abroad, in fact, should. It would take 21- months for John to graduate and it was a goal that would give us stability, a home base. My background is in retail sales and marketing. Learning another language would open new doors for me as well.
After our honeymoon, we got down to work. John began researching English-speaking, degree-granting universities on the internet. We stepped up our savings program and started preparing our family and friends. We expected to be told we were crazy, but received only enthusiastic responses, even from my financial advisor! John narrowed the field to four schools and began the application paperwork.
We evaluated the cities and our interest in the culture, language, etc. The final candidates were in Madrid and Rome. We couldn't make such enormous changes in our lives without visiting at least once. To ease our minds, we planned our vacation to visit both cities for a final winnowing. One of the universities in Rome filled all the requirements. We were even shown some apartments during our visit.
By choosing an apartment that normally houses only one student, we were able to trim costs. This was late March of 2001 and we left a housing deposit for the fall semester before we departed.
Once back home, we needed to pull together all the necessary documentation. Our passports were updated, but we needed visas. A visa is required if you are planning to stay in Italy more than 3 months. There are several different types; work, student, family, freelance, etc.
The differences and details on how to obtain are covered in an information-packed book titled, Living, Studying and Working in Italy by Travis Neighbor and Monica Larner. Since I was going to be enrolled in Italian classes, we were both able to apply for student visas, which is one of the least complicated types to obtain. Another document needed was the permesso di soggiorno, or permission to stay. This document is applied for after arriving in Italy and requires proof of insurance, a passport, a marca da bollo which is a stamp (purchased at the tabacchi shop), 3 passport-sized photographs and if you are a student, proof of enrollment.
What about health insurance, banking, and utilities? After arriving in Italy, we each purchased (at the post office) a year's worth of catastrophic insurance for about $75 U.S. This insurance covers us only in Italy and would not be the best option for everyone. While we were visiting, we checked to make sure our bank ATM cards could access cash. They did, making it unnecessary to open a checking account overseas. We access a set amount of cash once a week that covers all our food and incidentals.
Knowing our limit keeps us on budget, too. We rarely go to the ATM more than once a week. We each have mobile phones that are re-charged with cards purchased at the tabacchi, so we didn't have the hassle of getting a "land line." The apartment we lease through the university has water, gas, and electricity included.
We did not own a home in Houston (the lease on our apartment was expiring at just the right time), but we did have lots of possessions; a car, a truck, 5 bicycles and many things we didn't need or really want anymore. Downsizing our belongings was cathartic. We are very lucky to have wonderful friends and family who are storing our favorite pieces of furniture and household items.
We were actually giddy about selling our automobiles and looked forward to public transportation. We don't miss insurance payments and upkeep expenses. Most errands are completed a piede, by foot. Shopping with a 2-wheeled cart is fun and one can feel good about saving grocery bags and exhaust fumes.
The summer before we left, we took a continuing education course in basic Italian. It was a start, but anyone making a move like this should learn as much as possible before departing. Italians are extremely patient when you are trying to learn and often will try to help you.
One of our understanding
neighbors, Signora Molinari, keeps telling me "Piano, piano," slowly
it will come. Shortly after we had arrived in Rome, the horror of September
11 happened. The following day I was shopping at the outdoor mercato
and was asked if I was American. When I responded yes, the vendor lowered
his voice and his words were so sympathetic.
I felt enveloped in a cross-cultural hug and began to cry. Though I didn't understand exactly what he was saying, I knew what he meant. I have shopped with Alberto and his lovely wife, Bruna ever since. When you think about Rome being almost 3000 years old, we are sharing just a moment of her history, but she will resonate in us for the rest of our lives.
By Martha Miller