Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Here we are!

I wrote this after our first week here, but couldn't post it because we weren't online yet. I thought it might be of interest.

We are home! It feels like home, and even though we don’t “get” a lot of things, we are here, in Italy, bella Italia! Art is still having a hard time getting used to being retired. After working 2 jobs for more than 30 years, it takes a while to decompress. The adjustment was much easier for me, for several reasons. First of all, even when I was working, I only worked part-time. And I hadn’t worked at all this summer…my last day was in early May, when my mom went into the hospital, and then I never went back. And then there is the fact that I have a hard time putting forth my best effort for someone else. If it is a project I am interested in, like renovating a house or even better, a garden, I can and will work from sun-up til sundown. And then of course, while working for the post office, there was that thing about getting up at 4 am…ugh!

Our sleep is still rather erratic at this point…we even overslept on Friday and almost missed the SlowTrav GTG! Wendy ordered a new mattress for the bed, and we are very comfortable, especially since we brought our pillows from home. We moved the bed, and the room feels much nicer…all we have to do now is have some plugs installed on that wall for the bedside lamps, clock/radio, etc. We broke down and bought an electric mattress pad, just to be ready for that first cold snap. Eventually we will have a carpet on the floor, but for now, all we have are 2 small area rugs on each side, to ease the shock of that cold tile floor.

When we arrived at the Rome airport, we had no problem finding our driver, and, miracle of miracles, all 9 pieces of checked luggage arrived, on time and unharmed! Once we arrived in San Venanzo, Wendy met us at the house and took us to Perugia to pick up our car. Once that was done, we were finished for the day, and went to bed around 8 pm.

Day two, Thursday, had us shopping at the grocery store in Marsciano, then to the larger shopping center near Perugia for such household items as wastebaskets, throw rugs and assorted kitchen goods.

Day three was the day we overslept…we had both fallen asleep quickly the night before, then woke up after 3 hours. Art took one of his prescriptions to help him sleep, but after tossing and turning for quite a while, I got up and did some organizing, before returning to bed around 4 am. When we woke up the next morning, it was 11 o’clock, which was the time we had planned to leave the house for our GTG in Chianti. We jumped out of bed, threw our clothes on and headed out the door, calling ahead to let them know NOT to wait for us. Once we arrived, we had a great time and a fabulous lunch with the SlowTrav group, headed up by our queen, Pauline. The lunch lasted 4 hours, then we stopped by to see Cristina, who had organized the whole thing but was unable to come because she had the flu. It was dark by the time we got back home, and we fell into bed, but not before setting our alarm for the GTG on Saturday!

On Saturday we went to the next SlowTrav GTG in San Quirico, a charming little town just outside of Pienza in Tuscany. Another great lunch, more great people, another full day. We went to see Joanna’s house, which was about 10 minutes away, and it was a charmer! She still has lots of work to do, but the possibilities are fabulous! Our day was capped off by a stop at the Mercatone Uno, a large, K-Mart type store. We found a heated mattress pad with dual controls and a few other necessities, but still no large pitcher for iced tea. I did find one plastic pitcher with a lid, 1.5 liters, for about $14, so I passed.

On Sunday, we woke up to discover that the electricity was out. Pauline called to tell us that there was a power outage in Italy, extending north from Rome and that France was suspected of cutting a major line. We later learned that after France denied responsibility, a major storm near the Alps was identified as the cause. We finally got the power back around 3:30, and the water pressure followed a short time later! I was glad that I had charged the phone before we went to bed! We decided to drive down to Marsciano to look for something to eat, but most places were just opening or just starting their food due to the outage. Luckily for us, we stumbled on a great little pizza place with a wood oven, and their first pizzas of the day were coming out of the oven. For about $8 we both had a large slice of mushroom pizza, sausage pizza, and about 3 large glasses of red wine! A great deal!

Monday was the day we were supposed to go to Terni to apply for our residency papers, but Wendy needs some house documents that she won’t have until Wednesday. We went to the market for more supplies …these trips seem to run about $100 per day, but we only bought stuff we needed, so what are you going to do? We then went back to San Venanzo and met with Wendy, the geometra, (a kind of general contractor), and the plumber. We had previously emailed Wendy a list of the things we wanted to do to the house, so we sat down and worked out the details. It seems that we need a new caldaio, a system to heat the water for our radiators and the hot water. The good news is that we will get rid of the electric water heater, which is 18 years old and surely completely crusted over with mineral deposits due to the hard water. We settled on a location for the new bathroom, where to put the washer, and other such mundane items as making sure there were plenty of plugs in the kitchen, where the water softener would go, and what the wrought iron for the railing would look like. With Wendy there to help us, we were able to both give and receive detailed information regarding these projects.

The bad news was that although Rosella is ready to start the kitchen next week, the geometra can’t complete his work until the end of October, so we will have to make do with the smaller kitchen upstairs for a few weeks longer! We are going to try to reschedule our Italian classes for earlier than our Oct 27 start date, so that we can be here when the remodeling is taking place. I would not let anyone remodel my house while I wasn’t there, and we plan to stay in Perugia during the week and return home on the weekends. We are hoping to maximize the “immersion” by living and eating with an Italian family…I know I will need all the help I can get, and even Art will benefit, although he is much more advanced than I am…at least in Italian!

So, after almost a full week here, we are alive and well, excited and overwhelmed, still in awe every time we go out for a drive. Thanks goodness we aren’t pinching ourselves, or we would be black and blue by now. Tomorrow we will open a new bank account at a bank in San Venanzo…our bank now is located about 20 minutes away and doesn’t have as many branches, plus we would like to have a relationship with the people and businesses in San Venanzo. Art tells everyone we meet that we have bought a house here. Those who live in San Venanzo are happy for us, and those who live elsewhere always comment on what a pretty town it is. We decide over and over again, that yes, this is home.

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THE HOUSE IS OURS! PART 3 OF 3

I don’t even know where to begin this writing. Should I start at the VERY beginning, or should I just continue where I had previously left off? Buying a house in Italy was something that had never occurred to either of us. In fact, the idea of uprooting and retiring to Florida was fairly radical. It’s not that either Art or I aren’t adventurous, but I guess we all have a "comfort zone", and certain basic ideas that we may not even be aware of. For most people like us, you are born and die in the same place. Art had relocated to Louisville many years ago from Florida, so the idea of moving back to Florida would not have been that unusual. Once we realized and verbalized our desire, no, NEED to live in Italy, we set things in motion that assumed a life of their own. Along the way we have made many, many friends, lost a few too. We have agonized over the falling dollar, and celebrated the sale of our house…at least the first two times we sold it. When the third offer was accepted, I couldn’t find the strength to celebrate…I will save that for the day we actually sign the closing papers. We have struggled to learn as much as we could about the Italian real estate world, banking world, insurance world. It has been amazing to us to discover how differently things are done in Italy. Sometimes that has been a pleasant surprise, other times it has been a frustrating, expensive nightmare. Throughout all of this, we have happily discovered that we DO think alike on many issues. Our commitment to this move has been solid. Even though we have been married for thirteen years, it was still very reassuring to know that if all else were to fail, as long as we had each other everything would be fine.

After the failed attempt to close on the house in April, we returned home to try to correct the codice fiscale which had been issued, Italian style, in my maiden name. After speaking with the consulate in Detroit, and being told that it "must" be issued that way, I was going crazy trying to figure out how to get around this problem. Thanks to the SlowTrav message board (again), and Maria (again), we contacted an Italian immigration attorney, who contacted the consulate to educate them about the law concerning foreigners and codice fiscales. The new codice fiscale, this time carrying my married name, and matching the name on my passport, arrived by fax within 2 days. We thought that this would clear the way for the closing to take place by proxy. Boy, we were wrong!

Through our agents at La Porta Verde, we had applied for a mortgage. This process was begun in January, we were approved quickly, and were told that there would be no problem in closing before the end of April, as had been agreed upon. Dorrie was the "money person" for La Porta Verde, and as this process continued, we learned that the bank she had found for us was a German bank, and this was her first experience with them. As we would come to find out, we were the guinea pigs for many different aspects of this sale. Being Americans, not EU residents was a new and not so nice twist. Being unfamiliar with the insurance, residency requirements and remodeling were other areas that caused problems. More about those later. As for the bank, it wasn’t until after we had returned home and gotten the codice fiscale corrected that we discovered that the bank did not have the paperwork completed. We had assumed, incorrectly, that the codice fiscale was the holdup in April. What this bank was doing, or why it took so long, I still don’t know. Finally, on May 22, Dorrie emailed us to say the bank documents were ready, and that the closing would be the next Monday or Tuesday. Well, good news and bad news. For reasons that are not clear, we ended up declaring the full value of the house for taxes. This is not typical in Italy, where the national past-time is trying to give the government as little money as possible. Due to this fact, we were not sure what our taxes would be, and had no idea how much we would need for various closing costs. Only at this time did we realize that no one had ever told us how much we would need in April…we had a few estimates, and had brought several thousand dollars in cash, just to be sure. Now that we were paying taxes on the full value, we were even more afraid that our Italian bank account would not have sufficient funds to close, and we also knew that we would not be able to wire the money in time for a Monday or Tuesday closing. A word to the wise: allow about two full weeks for wire transfers. Although we have had money show up in two days, that is not something I would plan on!

We contacted Wendy, our proxy and guardian angel in Italy. She was able to talk to Dorrie and verify that we would indeed have the necessary funds to close. And so, Monday morning, May 26, everyone showed up for the closing….except for the bank documents, which were delayed or somehow held up until later that afternoon, causing scheduling problems for everyone. And then, it was done. The house was/is ours. A very anti-climatic moment for us. I think we felt more drained and relieved than elated.

I think this is definitely one of those experiences where one could say "I could write a book". I have maintained from the beginning that 99% of the "how to buy a house in Italy" articles and books are directed at the EU market, and that for Americans, there is very little good, current information. This complaint has proven much too true. With regard to La Porta Verde, I think their intentions were good, but the fact that they are English (EU residents) and the fact that we were the first Americans to obtain a mortgage caused many problems. When we inquired about the insurance for the house, we were only familiar with the way it’s done in the US. Although required for the closing, the insurance is purchased by the buyer, and then proof is sent for the closing. In Italy, apparently the bank provides some sort of insurance with the issuance of the mortgage, and this fulfills the legal requirements. Additional insurance may be purchased for the contents and possibly additional features, but these are things that were never explained to us.

Another area that seemed to cause problems was the fact that the 3% commission due to our agents, La Porta Verde, was paid at the time our deposit was made in January, when our offer was accepted. The level of service from La Porta Verde seems to have declined sharply after their fee was received. Maybe this is just our perception, but we felt as if we were begging to get basic information or updates. We decided to have the house inspected by a geomtra, and were very disappointed in his report. Again, what we are used to in the US is quite different from what is available in Italy. As I write this, a home inspector is at my home. The dishwasher is running, the bathtub is filling, lights are being turned on, windows are being opened, the heating and air conditioning is being checked. For the inspection in Italy, I could have told you everything that was in the report. When we expressed our dissatisfaction to Graham, he was quite upset…after all, he and the geometra had both spent time doing this inspection! When we asked specific questions like "does the refrigerator work" or "does the washing machine work?", the answer was "I didn’t look at them, but the realtor assures me that everything works".

La Porta Verde advertises on their home page that using their service costs no more than using a realtor, and that they will provide a more personal service, and a service tailored to non-Italians. We discovered, quite by accident, that this is NOT the case. La Porta Verde was going to charge us a 2% fee for finding us a mortgage. Initially, this fee was 3%, but was dropped to 2% when we complained, and later dropped completely when the bank failed to deliver on time. We did ask the bank to compensate us for their extreme delay, but they were not as accommodating. La Porta Verde also charged us 100 euro to receive the money for our deposit. The Italian bank charged approximately 23 euro to receive this money, and we assumed that the remaining 77 euro would be used to receive the balance. We later found out that an Italian real estate company would not have charged us this fee, nor would they have charged us for setting up the mortgage. And to add insult to injury, La Porta Verde would not accept the remainder of our deposit….they told us that due to anti-Mafia laws, their account could be closed if they received more than 10,000 euro. Being from the US, we were stunned….wasn’t this a business? Didn’t they have a special escrow-type account set up for just such monies? And later, we wondered why Wendy, our proxy, was able to receive the money into her account with no apparent problem. So La Porta Verde simply made an additional 77 euro, although I’m sure they feel as if they have earned it after dealing with us.

All in all, this has been an experience full of surprises, some good and some bad. As is to be expected, it took longer and cost more. Would we do it again? Yes! Could we have saved ourselves some headaches by being better prepared in some way? We don’t think so. Although we sometimes felt like we were in some bizarre Three Stooges routine, we think our problems were bad luck, bad timing, not really things we could have anticipated.

Now, if we can just get this house sold, we are hopeful that we can relax and begin to enjoy what is about to open up before us: our new life, in our new house, IN ITALY!

Monday, September 29, 2003

BUYING THE HOUSE IN ITALY - PART 2 OF 3

Here we are in the middle of preparing for our move to Italy. We are emailing to Italy every day; checking for emails FROM Italy about four times a day. We are still not certain how we will get our money to Italy. We do not yet have a bank account in Italy, and it is impossible for our bank to wire money to the bank itself to hold for our arrival. Our bank here says it must have an account number, and we agree that even if we could make this transfer without an account number, it’s a little scary to send the money and HOPE they receive it, or that they acknowledge it…what would we do if they just said they never received the money? So…we are still trying to figure out the best way, the safest way, the least complicated way, and also the cheapest way of doing this. Due to somewhat recent "anti-Mafia" laws, any bank account that receives large sums of money into it is under suspicion. The account could be frozen, closed, confiscated, who knows what? Bringing cash seemed to be the best bet, then we found out what the exchange rate was, and quickly changed our minds. A "eurocheque" was mentioned, to be drawn on an Italian bank, but we can’t be sure that this would be any more efficient. We need to be able to write checks immediately, and the transfer from one Italian bank to another is no faster than a transfer from the US, and that can take 10 to 14 days, although it has been posted in as few a three days. But of course, you can never be sure. The age of the internet and electronic banking is definitely here, but things don’t always work quite as smoothly or quickly as we would hope for. The rapid and dramatic decline of the dollar has us scared and crazy. Should we move money now? Wait a week? A month? Rob a bank? Buy a lottery ticket? Nine months ago we bought euro for 92 cents. Today a euro cost $1.10. Our house would cost $87,400 at the old rate. Today it costs $104,500.

Where did we go wrong? We think we have figured out a few mistakes we have made along the way, and will share them with you. Maybe they will help someone else avoid the same mistakes, or at least be aware of the complications that may arise. As I said earlier, we do not have a bank account in Italy. We thought about opening one on our last visit, but our friend talked us out of it, saying that it was such a quick and simple process, certainly not worth bothering with until we needed it. In retrospect, this one quick and simple process would have saved us hours of headaches and worry. We would have had an account to send our money to. We could have (hopefully) made arrangements to avoid being flagged as possible criminals. And it would have been one less thing to do once we return to Italy to close on our house. We have found out that not every bank will open an account for people without a permesso di soggiorno, as we are. You do need a codice fiscale, but this can be applied for online at the Italian consulate’s website. I think it took less than two weeks to receive ours, although we are still waiting, three months later, for the official cards. The important thing is that we have the numbers, and a letter from the consulate verifying their validity. Should you even be thinking about buying a house in Italy, this would be the first thing I would recommend. It’s an easy process, free, and if you never need it, so what? The next thing to do would be to open a bank account. It may take some research to discover which banks will let you open and account, and the restrictions that may apply, but if you do need to transfer money for a deposit or down payment, the account will be ready to accept your money.

As some of you may remember, when we scheduled our trip for last November, it was really just to look at towns and villages, areas, accessibility, livability, ambiance. We never expected or planned to actually find a house on that trip, so of course we did! Had we known then what we know now, I’m not sure what we would have done, but proving the saying that "ignorance is bliss", we made an offer on the house, and it was accepted! The fun had begun, but we didn’t know it.

Our original plans had Art retiring in October 2003. We planned to sell our house in the spring of 2003, sell all our furniture, put the stuff we would take to Italy in someone’s basement, and rent a furnished apartment with a short term lease. This way, when we DID return to Italy to find and buy a house, we would be ready, financially , physically, and hopefully mentally. Once Art retired, we would know what his retirement would net us each month. We would have time to set up the automatic transfer of the TSP funds we planned to use for our mortgage payment. We would request his pension check from his other job. We would have the financial resources to know what we could afford, to make an immediate deposit, to provide accurate, up-to-date information about our future income for a mortgage application. We would be unencumbered by a house, only needing 30 days notice to be on our way once we were ready. Finding our house unexpectedly was the good news AND the bad news.

Separate from the money and banking issues, we now have to sell our house, return to Italy to close on the new house, get rid of all our furniture, move to an apartment, and we STILL have to wait until the fall of 2003 to move! Of course we tell ourselves that finding the house when we did was just serendipity. And it will all work out one way or the other. And, ultimately, we will live in Italy. Perhaps if we had followed the "perfect" plan we would not have found the right house at the right price. We may have had the freedom to move without having a house to move TO. We just have to believe that everything happened the way it did for a reason, hopefully a good one, but if we had to do it all over again, I think we might have made all of the arrangements FIRST, so that when something came up, we could move without hesitation. But, if YOU are thinking about buying a house in Italy, consider the delays and frustrations that may occur, and plan accordingly!

Sunday, September 28, 2003

A HOUSE IN SAN VENANZO PART 1 0F 3

We had no interest in Italy. None. Nada. Then Frank (my son) was stationed near Naples for two years, so we decided to go. Our first trip was in September, 2000. We took an organized tour with our good friends Sherry and Dave. We arrived a few days before the tour began and stayed a few days after. We had a fantastic time, and the four of us talked of returning.

For Art and me, that opportunity would come in January, 2001, when NWA offered free airfare from Louisville with frequent flier miles. In March, we had a three week trip planned with my daughter Angela, her husband Duffy, and our grandson Nicholas. We were going to have a family reunion of sorts. This trip had been in the works since Frank and Shannon first knew they were going to Italy. Art and I spent a week in Umbria, and then went to Sorrento for a few days, Later we all met up in Formia, where Frank and Shannon lived. We then went to Rome with Angela, Duffy and Nicholas, and while the parents joined their tour group, we took Nicholas. The story of losing my purse and all three passports deserves a story all its own, but personally, I would just as soon forget the whole incident! Let’s just say that we made it back home eventually.

At this point, we’d been to Italy 3 times in less than eight months. And we were now wondering, when will we get there again? How can we wait? We had one week of vacation scheduled for October, and, as if heavenly ordained, that turned out to be the same week as the Chocolate Festival in Perugia! So we went.

We next returned in May 2002, for a two week visit, one week in Florence, one week in Umbria. Once we returned home I was too scared to post on SlowTrav the questions that were gnawing away at me: Could WE live in Italy? How would we do it? Could we afford it? Who would help us? I had posted similar questions after our March/April 2001 trip, and thought it was pointless to keep asking these same questions after every trip. After all, retiring to Italy was not something for people like us - people with just an average amount of money, little savings, and no language skills.

Once again, divine intervention. Umbriaphile (Carl) posed the same questions on the ST message board! Well, it must be a sign! We plunged into the discussion headfirst, with more enthusiasm than facts. And slowly, we started to get the idea that maybe we COULD do it. Other ex-pats told us that Art’s retirement would be more than adequate. They even said we could probably afford a house.

We contacted everyone we ever knew in Italy, or at least those who were foolish enough to give us their email addresses! We scoured the web, finding page after page of real estate agencies. Most of the places we saw on the web were WAY too expensive for us, but most people seemed to think that with some luck and patience, we COULD afford a house.

We made lots of helpful contacts, and decided to take our November vacation time to return to Italy to search for the perfect town. This seemed to be where we needed to start, because that was always the first thing people asked…what size town do you want to live in? We thought we knew what we wanted…to be IN a town, not isolated. The idea of an Italian villa sounds quite grand, but, #1, we didn’t have the money, and #2, how would we feel like a part of a community if we were out in the country, all by ourselves? If we were in a town, we could get to know our neighbors, and our Italian would probably come much faster. We wanted a town that was large enough to have the basics, such as a grocery, bakery, newsstand, butcher’s etc. Just large enough so that we didn’t have to get in the car every time we ran out of bread or needed a few things for dinner. And just small enough so that we could become a part of the community. But what did that mean? A town of 100, a town of 1000, or 10,000? And just which towns were these? We looked on maps, and tried to gauge the size of the town by the size of the type its name was printed in. We made lists and asked for opinions on SlowTrav. November couldn’t come soon enough!

We had rented a house for two weeks from an American named Judy. Helen from Italywithus.com had put us in touch with Judy, who was a recent transplant to Italy. Judy had given us lots of helpful information and we were sure that two weeks would give us plenty of time to house-hunt, city-hunt, and maybe sneak in a quick trip to Florence. Boy, were we ever wrong!

We had agreed to let Maria, Judy’s other renter, continue to live there, partly because we hated for her to move for such a short time, and also, selfishly, thinking that maybe she could help us. Maria had returned to Italy in September, having lived in Rome during her high school years. She was brushing up on her Italian and looking for work, so the three of us had a lot of exploring to do! Luckily for us, we hit it off right away.

Armed with a good map and lots of notes, we spent every day driving, driving, driving. We looked at Spina …too small. Marsciano…too large. Deruta…just not right. And so it went. Every day, new cities on the map, new suggestions, new ideas. Art had originally been very excited by Citta di Castello because it offered so many amenities. Plenty of shops. A good medical center. Always something to do. But then, after much discussion, we decided that we really wanted to stay SOUTH of Perugia. This was progress of sorts…at least we were narrowing down our area of interest. We also knew that we wanted to be centrally located, with good road and train connections. Our plans for our life in Italy included LOTS of travel, within Italy, and throughout Europe.

We contacted Wendy, a friend of Judy’s for some help. Wendy is an American who has lived in Italy for eleven years now. She's a translator for a real estate company, and we had sent her an email wish list before we arrived. Using her contacts, Wendy arranged for us to see several places …. Grutti…no, the medieval tower sounded nice, but the city just didn’t “feel” right. San Terezziano… a wonderful little medieval walled village, but more work than we wanted, and more money than we could afford! Todi…while the town seemed nice during a rainy November day, the thought of thousands of tourists from May through October each year made us say no. Amelia was too far south, and too far away from everything else we wanted to be near.

One day while on our way to another town on our list, Maria saw a sign for Massa Martana, and said she had heard good things about the town. Art took the exit, and there was Massa Martana, in the process of being completely rebuilt. Seems that the town had been severely damaged by the 1997 earthquake, and was only now rebuilding. The town square was filled with five, no, seven huge cranes, and it was obvious that the entire city within the walls was being rebuilt. The best of both worlds! Medieval charm, a walled city, and all new, modern conveniences!

As we wandered around, we spotted a woman working in the (closed) grocery store. As had become our policy, we asked her if she knew of anything for sale. This kind woman dropped everything, and gave us the grand tour! Since Maria was with us, we were able to get many, many details, and as luck would have it, this woman owned three apartments. She told us everything would be completely restored within a year, and took us on a tour of not only her three apartments, but several others as well. We got the name of the immobilliare (real estate agent), and left quite elated! What a cute town! Perfect size! Great ambiance! Modern heating and plumbing! Art was completely captivated, but then I started to think about the practicalities….do we really want to live in an apartment, with someone above and below us? Won’t the apartments be dark, due to the narrow streets? Maybe a rooftop apartment with a terrace would solve those problems, but could we afford one? Finally we realized that although Massa Martana was really cute, it wasn't going to be our new home.

More driving. More towns. I took notes and pictures, trying to remember not only details, but also FEELINGS. We arrived in Bevagna during the riposo, when everything is closed. The size was good, and it was FLAT. Italian hill towns are wonderful to look at, but when you're living there, you must consider whether or not you will want (or be able) to walk the hills everyday. Of course when you see 80 year old women walking for miles and miles, uphill and down, you feel guilty for being such a fat, out of shape American, but you still have to accept the reality of it. Bevagna was not only flat, and of a good size, but was also conveniently located to major roads and to a train hub in Foligno. It also had fantastic views OF the hill towns, such as Assisi, spreading out across the hillside. I thought "Well, if it’s this good, it must be too expensive for us."

Maybe Canara, just down the road would offer a reasonably priced alternative with many of the same qualities. But then we decided that it just didn’t “feel” right. On to Bettona. People were harvesting olives as we climbed the hill up to the city. The city was charming, but I thought we might feel a bit isolated sitting on top of the hill. And every day it was more of the same. Collazzone. Colleppe. Aquasparta. Sangemini. Corciano…cute…VERY cute. Torgiano was cute too, but a little too big. We fell in love with Montone. It looked like the town Disney would have designed as the perfect medieval Italian hill town, and the 360º views were to die for. There was good access to the E45, but we had already decided to stay SOUTH of Perugia.

We decided to call about some houses we'd seen on the internet. First we saw what we called “the divorce sale house”. Wendy had alerted us to this bargain… seems it was originally listed for €140,000, and now, due to an impending divorce, has been reduced to €70,000. We drove and drove, then turned down a deeply rutted white road, desperately in need of gravel. The road went on and on, and on some more, and at the end we found ourselves in what we knew we would never want…a borgo. Although we had been told the house was habitable but could use a bit of modernization and sprucing up, we considered it a total disaster that could only be saved by a bulldozer.

We headed back to the agent's house to look through the listings to refresh our memory, and we found a house that had interested us when we saw it on the internet. It was in a town called San Venanzo, it looked fairly modern, and it was within our price range. We remembered this house for two reasons: one, all the pictures were captioned in German, and two, for some reason there were THREE kitchens. Art said, “THIS is the house I want to see!” and the listing agent was called. As luck would have it, the listing agent was free, and although it was 4:30 and darkness was RAPIDLY approaching, we agreed to meet at the house ASAP.

Although Art was impressed by many things about the house, I remained skeptical. It was definitely not my dream house. The town was cute…not too small, not too large. It wasn't walled, but it did have a gelateria AND a bakery. (Sort of a his and hers deal we had agreed upon earlier) Art liked it because it was not just modern, but also because it wasn't falling down and in need of complete restoration. No chipping plaster. No uneven floors. Central heat. Gas Mains. Lots of windows and cross ventilation. Two bathrooms. He tried to sway me with the fact that one of the bathrooms had a bathtub, which was a big item on my wish list, but I remained unmoved. The house had no charm. It had a slight Bavarian feel to it for some reason, perhaps because of the carved wooden railing on the staircase. It did have a small yard (plus), but it was all in shade, so no tomato plants in the summer (minus). The yard backed up to a park which added to the privacy (plus) but the only access to the yard was from the outside (minus). It did have a garage, which was a big plus. There were kitchens all over the place…even one in the garage. The rooms were nice size. Oh, and I forgot to mention that there was paneling on some of the walls…the sort your Dad put in the basement rec room back in 1962. The agent assured us that this wasn't covering up any defects, and could be easily removed.

We walked through the town, down the main street. In addition to the shops already mentioned, there was a flower shop, a post office, a gas station, a hardware store, a newsstand, a butcher shop, two small grocery stores, several bars, even a hotel. Oh, and the volcano museum which we wouldn't discover until later. Two banks. Some sort of regional office for the forestry service. Police station, medieval ruins. A woman we met during a return visit told us there were no Americans or English living there.

Did I mention that it was in our price range? What was wrong with it?

We traveled to Paciano to have lunch with our friends Margaret and John. We knew that they bought the house we wanted…a terra ciello (ground to sky) with a small garden and a terrific view. It’s also in a cute little medieval walled city. We also knew that we could never afford their house. We told them about the San Venanzo house, showed it to them on the computer, and Margaret said, “if you want it, go home, get a second mortgage, buy it, then put your house up for sale. Don’t risk losing it if this is what you want.”

I was still thinking. A second visit improved my opinion, and Art made some valid and positive points about the house, but I was still waiting for the house to say something to me. Anything. I needed some inspiration, but the house said nothing. Maybe it was just because I didn’t understand Italian.

The agent suggested moving the kitchen (that would make four!), and also said we could change a window into a door in order to get to the yard from the house. These ideas made sense, but I was still uncertain. I knew that I COULD live here, but did I WANT to live here? Would it still be my dream house if it wasn't in a walled city? On the other hand, walled cities attract tourists. Would I want to live in the middle of Italian Disneyland? Part of me said, “Yes!”. I joked we could have tee shirts made that say “I live here and you don’t!” But, if we lived in San Venanzo, we could live as the Italians do. We could meet people. Walk to the shops everyday. And I could be in a walled city in 30 minutes or less if I wanted to.

So I had to decide: did I want to live in a fairy tale, which I probably couldn't afford, or did I want to live in San Venanzo. And slowly, I decided: it’s better to live in San Venanzo for real than to wait for the fairy tale. The fairy tale might never come, and all that time would have been wasted.

And so we bought the house in San Venanzo.

Postscript: Everything we read told us how much Italians love to bargain. The house in San Venanzo was listed for €103,000. The agent said the owner would probably take €100,000. The owner had moved to Bologna, and had no further interest in the house. We thought we'd offer €93,000, just to get the ball rolling, then decided to offer €95,000, hoping that at least some of the furniture might be included in the deal. We'd been told the owner didn't want the furniture, but woul remove anything we didn’t want. We weren’t sure if this meant it will stay or not. On Thursday we offered €95,000. On Friday, we receive an email that said, “Congratulations, they accepted your offer!” So much for negotiations.

Post postscript: We eventually bought all the furniture for an additional €500. We also removed all three existing kitchens and put in a brand new one. A window was changed into a door so that we could access our back yard more easily. When the park behind our house was restored and all the dead trees removed, we discovered that our garden actually got enough sun to grow some flowers and herbs. We've never regretted our decision to choose this house or this town. It WAS/IS my dream house, but apparently it was one of those dreams that you just can't seem to remember once you wake up. Now I don't have to remember my dream - I live it every day!