The wind howled outside. “Can you hear that? It’s so loud it’s almost scary.” During our first conversation, the maestrale winds of Sicily were giving Barbara a roaring welcome home. Just as 30 long-lost cousins had with a welcome home party thrown during Barbara’s first trip to Italy.
Like Paolo and I, Barbara Palermo and her husband Ken are American Expats who retired and moved to Italy in 2020 during the COVID pandemic. So naturally, I couldn’t wait to share their story with you! In this edition of Stories of Moving to Italy interview series, find out how a chance conversation in Oregon led to a search for family in Australia and Sicily. What a Sicilian homecoming is like and how long it takes to gain Italian citizenship by descent. How Barbara’s decision to retire in Sicily is tied to a mission to help others with Italian heritage embrace their homeland in Sicily. Plus, some of the pros and cons of living in Italy as an American expat.
Italian Citizenship by Descent
Like many Americans, Barbara grew up with only a slight awareness of her Italian heritage. While both of her grandparents had been born in Italy, Barbara was born in southern California. Through immigration and a desire to integrate, much of her Italian heritage and tradition was lost to her growing up.
Barbara "I didn't grow up Italian. When I found out I had cousins in Sicily still, I was curious. I wanted to know more about where I was from. So I interrogated my Mother. It had been so long though that my Mom couldn't really remember much about where my cousins were in Sicily. What she did remember was that part of the family had also immigrated to Australia. Thank goodness for the Internet! I started searching for my family in Australian when I came across an article about a winery in Melbourne owned by an Italian family. Turns out, they are my first cousins. Thankfully after all these years, they had stayed in touch with the Sicilian side of the family back in Italy. They put me in touch with my cousins in Sicily and that's how I was able to track down my family village."
Barbara has weathered a long journey to return to her maternal Grandfather’s village in Sicily. Her quest began in November of 2004. George W Bush had just been re-elected. On a bus bound for Oregon State University one fortuitous discussion between her husband Ken and a professor left a question lingering. Italian citizenship through birthright, could that extend to Barbara too? After that day, gaining dual citizenship based on ancestry became a discussion Barbara and her Ken kept returning to.
How Long It Takes to Get Italian Citizenship
In 2005 Barbara decided to get an answer to the question she and Ken had been discussing. Could she gain Italian citizenship through her Grandparents Italian descent? Barbara spent the better part of the year gathering the necessary documents to officially apply for what’s called Jure Sanguinis or Right of Blood (by Descent).
One of the things that make the right of blood citizenship in Italy so difficult is all the paperwork! Documents need to be in long form, translated into Italian. There are notaries, apostilles, and lawyers. For Italian citizen hopefuls like Barbara who did not speak Italian when she filed, this is a long and arduous process. Yet Barbara persevered and in 2006 she officially submitted her application for citizenship to the Italian consulate in San Francisco.
That’s when the wait began. It wasn’t until October of 2011 that Barbara could actually become an Italian citizen. In other words, even though Barbara is Italian by birthright, it still took five years to gain Italian citizenship. In 2012 Barbara and Ken started over again. Working to gather all the paperwork for Ken to become an Italian citizen through marriage. That journey took another seven years. Ken gained his Italian citizenship in 2019.
Barbara and Ken’s paths to Italian citizenship were long, but along the way there were rewards. Like their first trip to Italy together in 2014. To their great surprise, that’s when Barbara met her extended family for the first time.
Barbara "I was nervous about meeting my cousins in Sicily. I didn't speak Italian at the time. I didn't know what to expect, how we would communicate. When we showed up, my cousins had thrown us a Welcome Home Party. There were 30 of us! There was a full seven course meal, balloons, they had gathered family photo albums, it was amazing. There was even a cake with Welcome Home spelled out in chopped pistachios. The very next year we came back for a family reunion. There were even more of us that time, including cousins that had come all the way from Australia! We went back every year after that. It was that feeling of being welcomed home that really put our five year plan into motion."
Why Retire in Italy
Brandy: What made you decide to put a plan in place to move to Italy?
Barbara: Just as couples in love sometimes believe that fate brought them together, that’s how I feel about Sicily. A series of fortuitous events put us on a path that we didn’t anticipated and couldn’t ignore. So many unexpected events brought us together, it seems like it was just meant to be. It felt like it was my destiny more than a choice. We stayed open and flexible and followed the path that was evolving in front of us.
Barbara was telling me her story from Giardini Naxos, Sicily. A beach town just a stone’s throw from Taormina, the Pearl of Sicily. It’s here that Barbara and Ken’s story found a home in Italy.
Deciding Where to Live in Italy
Brandy: Could you tell us a little about how you decided where to live in Italy?
Barbara: We were still unfamiliar with Sicily when we began planning our first trip here to meet my cousins in 2014. That’s when we happened to read in the news that James Gandolfini (star of The Sopranos) had died in Rome on his way to a film festival in Taormina, Sicily.
After a bit of research, we decided this would be a good place to acclimate to the island while I worked up the courage to meet my long-lost relatives. We spent a few days in and around Taormina and really liked it, especially Giardini Naxos, a beach town that reminded me of Huntington Beach in southern California, where I grew up in the 1970s. It seemed like time stood still there.
A year later we hired a property-finder and began the search for a home in this area. Ultimately, we found a small farm just 3 km to the sea and Giardini Naxos and a little more than an hour’s drive to the small village where my cousins live in Francofonte. The house was being renovated and wasn’t even close to being finished and the land had been neglected and was overgrown with brambles so much so that we couldn’t even see most of the property. But we knew this was the place for us, so we embarked on what ended up taking 2 years and 7 months to purchase it.
Barbara’s fated story sounds so idyllic it made me wonder, what the hard parts have been. So I asked Barbara one of my favorite questions for expats.
Brandy: What’s the hardest part of living in Italy as an expat, the cons so to say?
The Cons of Living in Italy
Barbara: Honestly, living in Sicily is everything we had hoped for and more. It hasn’t been a difficult adjustment at all; but more of a pleasant relief. All the cons are minor. The hardest thing is the 9-hour time difference, making it difficult for me to call my family and friends in the US whenever I feel the need. We haven’t yet adjusted to waiting until 9 pm to eat dinner, and I still get annoyed sometimes with businesses that don’t have websites and/or close in the afternoons. The bureaucracy is bad, but it was bad in the states too. What makes it worse here is the fact that we don’t speak Italian very well and don’t understand how things work, so it's harder to navigate all the red tape. The one thing I do hate here is the electric company, ENEL. They have been incredibly slow and difficult to work with and have absconded with our electric meter more than once, leaving us in a pickle. We’re in the process of going 100% solar, so that problem will soon end.
Brandy: Is there anything else that you miss from America? Any foods or creature comforts?
Barbara: I miss Mexican food and zip-lock bags but Amazon.it has been a lifesaver!
It might be hard to believe but there are foods that American expats living in Italy miss. Mexican food is usually high on that list. With ziplock bags, after living and shopping in American grocery stores for ten years even Paolo has been known to mutter “what’s wrong with Italy” after searching for ziplock bags to no avail in our local market. So from experience, I can say, I’m with Barbara on the little things American Expats usually miss early on after moving to Italy.
One thing is for sure, with all the expat living in Italy interviews I’ve done so far, is that there is one major consistent answer. While there are things we miss and Italian bureaucracy is hard, the positive aspects of living in Italy far out-weight the cons.
Brandy: What’s the most rewarding part of living in Italy as an expat, the pros!?
Pros of Living in Italy
Barbara: There are many pros to life here, but the number one best thing, and my husband agrees, is the importance of relationships. They feel so much more genuine. People are not phony, they either love you or they don’t, but you always know where you stand. Most everyone we met, including our neighbors, have welcomed us with open arms, always honking and waving when they drive by or stopping to drop off a jug of homemade wine, veggies from their gardens or a bucket of blood oranges. The quality of food is much better here, and we also feel a stronger sense of freedom and safety. As you know, the US is struggling and has become a very volatile place.
One thing I’ve battled with sharing is that being an American expat right now comes with a sense of calm mixed with a tinge of survivor’s guilt. It feels like looking at an accident on the road behind you in the rearview mirror. So I understand where Barbara is coming from here. With the slower pace of life in Italy, the focus on family and friendships over politics is a welcomed relief. It also explains why so many people have started reaching out to me directly here on ALOR. This is also why I like to ask my fellow expats for their advice when it comes to considering a move to Italy.
Advice on Moving to Italy
Brandy: Do you have any tips you’d like to share for moving to or living in Italy?
Barbara: My advice is probably the opposite of what most expats would say. Many recommend traveling around and renting before committing. But I think it depends on where you are in your life. Are you doing this alone, or do you have a fully committed partner? Do you have animals to consider? Do you have family in the area? And your age is very important too. Being in our early 60s, we didn’t want to spend precious time exploring; we wanted to jump right into our best life the minute we could retire in 2020. Looking back, it was a smart move to settle on a place and purchase our farm before relocating. Things in Italy take a long time and you never know what’s going to happen, Covid-19 for example, to mess up your plans. My advice, in short, is don’t hesitate, go for it. Life is short! Most importantly, don’t let fear hold you back. I talk about this a lot in my book “Over the Sicilian Moon.” Don’t listen to naysayers. The hardest part is making the decision, but once you do, every single thing you do from that point forward should be dedicated to getting you closer to your goal. I’m not saying don’t do research, but don’t overthink it either.
Brandy: Barbara what’s next for you now that you have settled into Italy?
Barbara: I want to help Americans fall in love with Sicily. To help people with Italian heritage come back and embrace their homeland in Sicily. Because of the language barrier, I believe Americans coming to Italy for the first time would be more comfortable staying with an American expat in Sicily. So we've created a farm stay experience with two rooms listed on AIR B&B. Plus this April we're finishing construction on a stand alone apartment that will be more private for guests as well.
Barbara and Ken named their farm Arches of Alcantara after the nearby remnants of an old bridge and the lush Alcantara Valley in which it sits. Personally, I’m chomping at the bit to take Barbara up on her offer to come down to visit her in Sicily! I’m a sucker for stays in Italian countrysides. Plus being located 10km from Taormina the “Pearl of Sicily” and 4km from Giardini Naxos beaches means really getting to see the charm of Sicily in a personal way. To see photos of the rooms, views, and surrounding attractions head over to Arches of Alcantara.
On April 1st, 2021 Barbara and Ken are opening up their home to guests who like me, are eager to experience Sicily. While COVID travel restrictions will keep non-European citizenship away there is always a virtual vacation. Here’s a video preview of their story “Over the Sicilian Moon“now available on Amazon. Since this interview was posted Barbara and I have both been delighted to receive emails from readers, fellow expats, folks hoping to gain their Italian citizenship, and people hoping to travel to Sicily. We wanted to make it easier to contact Barbara directly via email. Barbara firstname.lastname@example.org