Share Your Italian Story: Moving During a Pandemic

| Fri, 03/05/2021 - 00:00
Victoria leaving for Italy

Moving to another country has its challenges. Doing it as a single mature woman poses additional hurdles. Add to that a pandemic, and many would be inclined to give up, or, at the very least, postpone. Not Victoria De Maio: after many years of traveling to Italy, for personal and professional reasons, and with 100% Italian ancestry, she strongly felt the call of the motherland; thus she decided, it was going to be now or never. 

That does not mean her move was not carefully planned and organized; it took time, commitment and difficult decisions. Finally, in October 2020, as Italy was going through its second Covid-19 wave, Victoria arrived. As she tells us, “…and incredibly here I am in Florence. Despite challenges. Despite a pandemic. Despite quarantine, yellow orange red, I did it. For how long? TBD. It's unfolding. Embracing every day...immersing and maybe inspiring others to follow their dream.”

Let’s hear from Victoria herself how her Italian story unfolded. 

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Napa, California, which was a small town at the time. My ancestry is 100% Italian. All of my grandparents immigrated from Italy. There were quite a few Italians in Napa and, although my parents (both born in the US) spoke Italian to each other, like so many of my generation, I was never taught the language. (Of course, even as a child I could interpret a lot from their very expressive tone, volume, and gestures!)

How long have you lived in Italy?

After almost a year of planning, I arrived in mid-October 2020. I was originally going to come in mid-September, but, when COVID came on the scene, I pushed my arrival forward (thinking the pandemic would be under control). Obviously I was wrong about the pandemic, but I’m glad I came when I did!

I am here for an ‘extended stay’ and, as of now, the plan is to stay at least another six months and probably much longer. Although it’s a ‘work in progress’, I did sell, gift, donate and store what I didn’t bring or ship here. My intent, personally and professionally, was and remains to immerse, learn, connect, and be able to offer more of Italy to my clients, i.e., be their “boots on the ground in the boot”.

Victoria enjoying _the sweet life' in Lecce, Puglia (Fall 2019)
Victoria enjoying the "sweet life" in Lecce, Puglia photo courtesy of Victoria De Maio

Why did you choose to move to Italy?    

I have always loved Italy and loved traveling here and, although the idea of being able to stay longer, dig deeper and travel in neighboring countries was always appealing, the notion of actually living here wasn’t always on my radar. 

I reflected on my journey when I edited and republished a series of blog posts called “Roots Redux” and, in retrospect, I can definitely pinpoint several “ah-ha” moments…

From the first time I traveled to Italy (long ago and far away!) and several other trips sprinkled in over the years, it wasn’t until I lost both of my parents that my relationship to Italy really started to shift. 

In 2007, I decided to go to Sicily as an homage to my father. (He wanted to return and we had planned to go together but he was never able to make the trip.) That trip really triggered a turning point; I really just got it! I understood that thread of DNA, the roots, that run so deep. I understood my father more, I understood me more. I understood my upbringing more. Not just understood, but embraced. I gained a new respect and gratitude for the grandparents that I barely or never knew.  

Finally, in 2013, I initiated my quest for Italian dual citizenship through my paternal grandfather. By now I was traveling more to Italy, starting to write/blog about it as well as partnering with locals and leading small group tours. As I learned and traveled more, my relationship to my Italian roots evolved and became even more important for me. Combined with my research for required documents, more was revealed about their stories which, of course, is my story. I became an Italian citizen in 2015.

Returning more often and developing wonderful connections and friendships, I found myself wanting to immerse and explore much more. I even published an Italy Travel TipZ book. I still had not made a decision to “move’ but, I can say that, with each subsequent return to Italia, my sense of feeling more at home here made significant incremental shifts.  

Finally, in November 2019, I experienced a seismic shift, one of those ‘now or never’ moments and a compelling and timely quote confirmed my ‘line in the sand’ and ‘no turning back’ decision:  

"A year from now you will wish you had started today." - Karen Lamb

It was time, and the life-changing decision to go to Italy for an extended stay of at least six months in fall 2020 was made.   

Victoria with her book, taken at my new _home_ in Florence, Palazzo San Niccolo.jpg
Victoria with her book in Palazzo San Niccolò, Florence - photo courtesy of Victoria De Maio

Where have you relocated to and why did you choose that particular area of Italy?  

I used to and still say that I wanted to literally and figuratively ‘fall out the door and be surrounded by beauty’. And, for me, Florence personified that and it still does. It’s a city I love and, although I was familiar with her, I wanted to be intimately acquainted.

There are so many other cities and regions I love and look forward to re-visiting, but Florence was always my first choice. She has everything I wanted and needed. It is perfectly located with close proximity not only to other cities, but to other regions with an accessible train station, airport, etc. I also knew I wanted to live within walking distance of the historic center. And, aesthetically and culturally, the ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’ is magical. 

Also, having supportive friends here and close by (especially as a single) is tremendously comforting. 

Victoria with local travel partners_friends in Chianti Country
Victoria with local travel partners friends in Chianti country - photo courtesy of Victoria De Maio

What was most challenging to adjust to in your new life in Italy? 

I knew, of course that I would be walking everywhere, but not having a car is a big adjustment. (I did prepare by undertaking an ambitious walking regimen in 2020!).

It has been a bit disappointing not to be able to see or visit with many of my local friends/associates and not being able to do/go/travel to other regions (yet!), but we remain hopeful and optimistic.

Also, I had to really consolidate and downsize my entire life. Deciding what to take, making long lists and reviewing constantly what I would need and anticipating practicalities/challenges of daily life were stressful/nerve-wrecking.

I have not obtained an Italian phone number, so I haven’t navigated that yet and just learning the way things are done on a daily basis (as opposed to visiting) is a definite learning curve.  

How have you coped with the language?

As I mentioned, I grew up hearing Italian and, in fact, have taken numerous classes, but I haven’t been consistent. It’s a regret, but life had more pressing priorities so now I’m doing my best. 

More than one Italian friend has told me that now I need to learn/speak Italian and I am embarrassed to say that I am far from fluent, barely conversant the way I should be. 

I am reminded when, not being fluent in Italian but looking Italian, results in awkward moments. Trying but not entirely understanding what is being said or being able to easily respond in Italian, I am quickly identified as ‘inglese’ and I am disappointed with myself and resolve to do better.

And then, of course, there are the masks which make hearing and speaking much more challenging and more difficult to understand each other.

Have you made friends where you live now? Overall, what was the transition like? 

Yes, it’s wonderful. Friends immediately offered a perfect accommodation and I’ve met others who are staying here as well as making new acquaintances. 

The process of planning to get here was very intense and stressful (I had to change flights and airlines three times). Then, of course, the anxiety of making the trip during COVID, it was a huge relief to finally be here!  Thanks to the support of friends, my transition was and has actually been very smooth. 

Let me add that I’ve traveled here so much and I went through a lot of ‘reality therapy’ beforehand so there haven’t been any big surprises.

Victoria in Chianti country - photo courtesy of Victoria De Maio

What are the aspects of Italian culture and lifestyle you love the most?

The pandemic has hit Italy very hard and has demanded much sacrifice from the people. It’s been difficult, but I have learned so much more about their resilience and patience. They inspire me! 

I love that people are out and about (when they can be). Walking everywhere, there’s a wonderful energy and I love exploring neighborhoods and becoming more familiar with where I live. 

Local friends have been so generous showing me around and helping with referrals and resources. I find Italians generally warm, helpful, and friendly, and patient with a non-fluent visitor, even in these challenging times. 

What are the aspects of Italian culture and lifestyle that drive you crazy?

Requests are inevitably met with a polite and accommodating “si” but that doesn’t always mean it will happen or happen in a timeframe I might be used to or prefer.  Slowing down my pace and learning to be less type A in many ways, I have had to learn to be more patient and flexible in my expectations.

Of course I’ve read and been warned about the ‘famous’ (infamous?) Italian bureaucracy, but I haven’t really had to deal with it yet!  

What’s your experience of the expat community?

To be honest, between quarantine and the strict COVID protocols, my experience with expats has been pretty limited. Most contact has been virtual or on a limited one-on-one basis and that has been positive. Along with locals, they are also a great resource for referrals and recommendations.

Victoria enjoying my first Christmas in Florence and in Italy Dec 2020.jpg
Victoria enjoying the first Christmas in Florence and in Italy - photo courtesy of Victoria De Maio

Tell me about any goals or desires you have for your life in Italy.

I actually came with no expectations. I came ready to be flexible, adapt, make mistakes (and hopefully learn from them!), willing to feel a little uncomfortable, but be comfortable in my own skin, and be open to new experiences, acknowledging that there would be ups and downs, but never entertain any doubt that this was the right thing for me to do.

I also came with the goal of taking my Italy Trip and Tour Design business to a new level - to be here, boots on the ground, to immerse, learn more, meet more locals and be able to offer richer experiences to my clients while supporting the local community. Hopefully, once travel resumes, this goal will start to be realized. In the meantime, I am taking advantage of every opportunity to explore, visit museums, etc., and do a lot of virtual learning.

I’m not exactly sure where this is all going or for how long. I’m just here - living, working and being where I know I want to be, personally and professionally. And, like everyone else, working within the parameters and unknowns of the pandemic.  

I do every so often remind myself why I did this. It was a combination of realizing a dream, weighing and making very difficult choices, a willingness to step out and move into a lot of unknowns, as well as moments of discomfort and self-doubt but also moments of “yes, I did it!”. And definitely moments of “pinch me, I’m in Florence! I’m in Italy!”

What advice would you give to someone thinking of making the move?  

My advice (and I do get asked) is: Please don’t think it’s just a matter of making an impulsive decision, packing a bag, and then living la dolce vita. It’s far more complex than that! It is not simple. I’m not going to romanticize or sugar coat it. 

I’ve been called ‘lucky’ and I make it clear that luck had nothing to do with it; it required a lot of research, soul searching, and difficult decisions and choices. Finding a balance between your dream and reality. Being willing to take some risk and ask yourself if you are really ready for enormous changes. 

It is not like being on vacation. And it is not a Hallmark card or Hollywood movie (certainly not Under the Tuscan Sun!). It’s no secret that I am passionate about and love Italy, so it’s not exactly new territory for me but I do know that there’s a huge difference between visiting and loving a place and the day to day practicalities of living in a place. 

In any case, let me be clear, I had my eyes wide open. Let me add that I’m not a dewy-eyed Gen X either. I’m a single boomer and, of course, I had my moments of self-doubt and “what the hell am I doing?” but ultimately the regret of not doing it outweighed any doubt or fear and I came to the conclusion that, for me, it was now or never! 

Thank you, Victoria, for sharing your Italian story with Italy Magazine readers!