abroad Posts

Chickens and Rabbits and Dogs, Oh My!

While I felt an immediate affinity to the villa in Marinelli, Jessica was less than unconvinced that this place could ever be our home.  Her reaction struck me hard, as rarely before had we not instantly been in tune on such an important matter.  Our tastes, priorities, goals and dreams had always been so in synch that, when later that evening she told me that she was not impressed with the property, I began to question my own take on it.  But, as we talked further, it became clear that her concerns were negative reactions to things that could be remedied.  All that would be required were (1) a willingness to violate the rule that we would not take on a renovation project; (2) a great deal more money than we had any intention of spending; and (3) such trust in people we hardly knew that it bordered on foolhardiness.  Sounded fine to me.

We were accompanied on the tour of the property by Pietro, the proud owner of the villa.  He had built it himself, and he and his wife had raised their three children in it.  By all indications, the villa was his fourth child.  Though he and his wife had moved out of the home nearly ten years ago and into another place just up the road, he continued to tend the land as he had done for a generation.  Now in his late-sixties, Pietro had a bum hip and could not get around the way he’d have liked to, but he is quick to smile and he loves this place.

I think that what took Jessica’s breath away as we entered the villa, was the kitchen.  The floor was covered by old-style Italian tiles laid-out in a square pattern of almost a fleur-de-lis motif.  They were a medium brown color and, to my mind, very appropriate for an Italian kitchen. The problem was more that the walls were also covered by tiles that, neither by their colors nor their patterns, were remotely consonant with the floor.  In fact, they two clashed quite violently.  For Jessica, that set the tone.

We visited the large living room next and found it to be full of natural light and high-ceilinged, quite to the contrary of many of the places we had seen earlier in the day.  We walked down the hallway with its beautifully-crafted chestnut arch and walked into each of the three generous bedrooms and a fourth room between the master bedroom and the kitchen that might have been a pantry.  Strike two for Jessica was thrown when we saw the one bathroom in the house.  Once again, tiles covered the floor and the walls, but this time, the tiles were the same giving us a sense that the room was small, round and featureless.  The bathroom fixtures were of a similar color to the background of the tiles which almost made them disappear.  The shower, such as it was, was an Italian version and something that we might think of as half of a bathtub with a shower head.  Too small to bathe in, but taking up too much room to simply be a shower.  I could see what Jessica was thinking from the look on her face.  “I don’t think so.”

We left the living quarters and toured the other parts of the villa: the cantina, where the canning was done and wine was stored; the forno, the wood-fired pizza and bread oven; the external bathroom for use after working in the fields; three large storage areas where equipment was kept.  Finally, there were three small buildings that were attached to each other but separate from the main house.  I asked Pietro what they were for.

He pointed to the first enclosure, part stone, part wire fence, mostly stench.  “Per i polli,” he said.  For the chickens.  Referring to the second building, he said, “Per i conigli.”  For the rabbits.  The last shack, “Per i cani.”  For the dogs.  At this point, Jessica was ready to leave.

Fortunately for our story, we walked out of the compound to an area that overlooked the olive grove.  There were about eighty trees in all, though it didn’t occur to us to count them that day.  We were much too busy looking at the beauty of them and dreaming of the time that we might tend to them and actually see olives hanging on their branches.  I looked at Jessica and saw that we were back on the same frequency.  The tiles on the kitchen walls could be removed; the bathroom could be re-done; the animal enclosures could be removed.  All that we found objectionable could go away and we would be left with, well, our dream.

Next Up:  Let’s Make a Deal

A Trulli Wonderful Experience

I suppose we did have things turned around a bit.  I’m told that most people visit a place before deciding to move there, but we’ve never been conventional in our approach to life-changing decisions.  We concluded that we should move to Puglia and THEN we visited, not so much to confirm that we had made the right decision,  but even WE were not going to buy a house without seeing it in person.

Our on-line real estate research exposed a large selection of homes available for purchase in Puglia, so many that we had to limit our search to the area between the Adriatic coast cities of Bari to the north and Brindisi to the south, an area generally referred to as the Valle d’Itria.  In all, we arranged to meet with ten real estate agents over a four-day period and see thirty-three properties.

I’m not sure what we expected to find when we began our tour of homes in Puglia on a sunny September morning but, after the sixth property, Jessica and I wore discouragement and disappointment on our long faces.  The photos on the websites were so enticing and the homes we picked to visit seemed to be so right for us but the realities were quite different.  We learned what “70 square meters” looks like.  Cramped.  We discovered that “in the countryside” means that the property is impossible to get to without a GPS.  We found that many of the places on the market were the holiday homes of Brits set up to accommodate two or three families on vacation, but not to serve as a permanent residence.  Most were worn and fit-out “rustically.”  Bathrooms were of colors unknown to us and the kitchen cupboards, instead of having cabinet doors, had thin drapes that slid open and closed on a wooden dowel.  We saw trulli, the ubiquitous, conical-rooved buildings unique to the Valle d’Itria and, while Europeans were hot to buy them to holiday in, we found them to be uninhabitable, dark and claustrophobic.  “I think Yoda lives in a trullo,” Jessica whispered to me.  We were beginning to question our plan, but our patience was to be rewarded with the last property we were to see on our first day of touring.

It is not an overstatement to say that our lives changed when we met Colleen.  To her and her partner in business and in life, Francesco, we owe more than we can ever repay.  We had arranged to meet Francesco at 4:00 pm on our first day but, when I called to confirm, the British-accented woman with whom I spoke said that Francesco had been called out and that, instead, we would be seeing two properties with her.  As instructed, we met her at the offices of Real Estate Cisternino.  As we entered the establishment, Colleen arose from the desk and greeted us warmly.  Tall, blonde and with a figure suitable for the runway, Colleen reprised the lilted tones of England that I heard on the phone a bit earlier. We got into our rented car and I drove as Colleen navigated.

The first place she took us to was, at least, a single-family, permanent (more-or-less) residence.  It was owned by an elderly British couple, the gentleman of which had, unfortunately, fallen ill and they had gone back to England for his treatment.  The relatively large three-bedroom home was in decent condition and had some attributes (such as central heating and a second bathroom) that some of our candidates did not.  On seeing it, Jessica and I began to feel a bit more encouraged about finding a place that would suit us, though we both knew that this was not it.  First of all, we weren’t sure that we would ever be able to find it again.  We knew from the website description that the property was near a town called Ceglie Messapica but, after turning off of the main road between Ceglie and Cisternino, we took such a series of one-lane, dirt tracks that even Colleen seemed, at times, confused.  A single bottle of wine at dinner in town would certainly have rendered us utterly incapable of finding our way home, regardless of how long we might have lived there.  Second, the house clearly needed a good deal of work and we had, early on, decided that we absolutely would not take on a renovation project in a foreign country from 5,000 miles away.

Which takes us to the second, and last property presented to us by Colleen.  Called “Villa Marinelli” on the website, it was described as follows:

“Located in the hilltop village of Contrada Marinelli which borders the towns of Locorotondo and Cisternino; an unusually large villa of 150 square meters, in reasonably good structural condition with the added benefit of numerous additional outside storage areas.  The surrounding land is approximately 4,500 square meters.  The property requires some upgrading as the style dates back to the 1980s.”

We arrived at the villa in Marinelli late that afternoon.  Ten minutes later, I knew that I was home.

Our Home in Puglia


Why Puglia?

Jessica and I met nine years ago.  She was 28 years old at the time.  I was a mere 51.  Somehow she saw past my immaturity and we married on the US Virgin Island of St. John nearly five years later.  Two years after that, as I approached my 58th birthday, we began to discuss, in earnest, how we would spend our post-work years.  Two elements of that decision persisted during those conversations: first, we wanted a lifestyle that did not include Pittsburgh winters.  Both of us were born and raised in Pennsylvania and I had endured fifty-six of them and had no interest in increasing my experience.  Second, having lost over half of my wealth in a divorce less than ten years ago, our retirement would be either done on the cheap, or postponed.

As for putting retirement off until our finances were such that we could count on a more comfortable life, our analysis was simple: to count on a life at all is tempting the fates.  We both knew too many people, my father included, who finally got to the leisure years only to find that health issues intervened and the life that many had worked so hard for and dreamed so much of was never offered to them.  We would not gamble that way.  Better to have a longer, more frugal experience than become another example of why one should opt for it.

So, having determined that warm and cheap were the guiding principles behind our search, we took the risk of adding some luxury criteria to the list.  Jessica and I both love food and wine and, though we could certainly live on beans and rice and suck down the occasional locally-brewed beer, such a culinary existence would not provide us with the most acceptable retirement.  Next, we added history and culture to the list.  Our life together thus far had been surrounded by art and we were very much a part of the Pittsburgh art scene.  We could not imagine a life that had no access to the intellectual stimulation to which art and culture had addicted us.

Only after those matters came such considerations as safety and security, healthcare, political stability, access and all of the other concerns that normal people have when contemplating a place to live.

Obviously, staying in the US occurred to us.  We both have family there, the language is familiar to us (in most parts of the country) but, try as we might, neither of us could come up with a single place in the country that met our objectives.  And, when we got into the literature on the best places to retire beyond the borders of the States, the emphasis seemed to be on the least expensive options, not necessarily the best ones.  Topping most lists were Ecuador, Panama, Mexico (Really?), Nicaragua, Colombia, etc.  Certainly, by all accounts, one could live there very cheaply and it sounds like the weather would be acceptable to us, but after that, there was no appeal.

But a few other regions popped up on the lists that were much more intriguing.  Among them: southern Italy.  We had been to Italy twice, once before we were married and the second time, on our honeymoon.  So, being experts in the country and I having done some internet research on the south, we decided to move to Puglia.  The fact that our “Italian experience” was limited to a coach tour of Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan and an extra week in Tuscany after our wedding and, that we had never been south of Rome, was not going to stand in the way of our packing up everything we owned, leaving our families and friends, and moving to somewhere we had never visited nor even heard of until a few weeks before.  Jessica and I sat at an outdoor cafe in Las Vegas over the Fourth of July weekend and made the decision over a bottle of wine.

The internet is a very handy thing, I found.  Someone should have thought of it much sooner.  The web made it possible for me to make appointments with ten real estate agents who would show us thirty-three properties in four days.  So, on September 4, two months after the decision in Vegas, we boarded the plane that would start us on our journey to find a home in Puglia.


Next up: A Trulli Wonderful Experience

Puglia Bound

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” my dear friend, Birch, said.

Now, I knew full-well that it wasn’t the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.  We went to high school and college together forty-some years ago and we heard some REALLY stupid things in those places.  My telling him that Jessica and I were moving to Italy came nowhere near the end of the stupid scale compared to the ravings of students and faculty on campus in the early-70s.

“You can’t just quit your jobs, leave your friends and families and move half-way around the world.  That’s just stupid.”  If he was trying to get me to argue with him about the stupidity part, he was disappointed.  I wasn’t at all sure that he was wrong about that. Nor was I going to correct his geography and remind him that Italy wasn’t even a quarter of the way around the world from our home in the States.  Nonetheless, we were committed to leaving our very good jobs, selling our 3,000 square foot penthouse in Pittsburgh, and moving to southern Italy, Puglia, to be specific.

Birch has gotten used to the idea, now, as have our families.  In fact, I think they’ve bought into the idea that they now have a vacation home on the heel of Italy’s boot.

If you have any interest in Puglia and other Italy destinations, if you have thought about what it might be like to move to another country, take on a new language, make your own olive oil or, if you laugh when you see someone roll down a set of stairs or use the Italian word for “penis” when asking for “pens” (pene instead of penne), then stay tuned.  We’ll be here talking about the good, the bad and the worse.


Next Up:  Why Puglia?