THIS IS NOT a typical guidebook because there are plenty of those on the market. Does the world really need another book telling you how to spend 36 hours in a foreign city? My husband Dave and I retired and then spent one entire year living in Europe.
When we left for Italy, we were newly retired and needed to figure out our post-retirement life. What new shape would life take? It wasn’t all smooth sailing and we struggled along the way. Retirement was an adjustment for us, individually and as a couple, and we realized just how different from each other we had become over the years. It was a big change for us to leave behind our 9 to 5 lives and suddenly be alone together all day, every day.
As a Type 1, insulin-dependent diabetic, living in Europe came with a steep learning curve for me. When we left the U.S., I didn’t know how I would find insulin to manage my diabetes, or if it would be affordable. All of my research and planning before the trip began couldn’t prepare me for the reality of managing diabetes in a foreign country.
Still, despite worries, we had talked about and dreamed about our “Bel Sogno,” our Beautiful Dream trip for years. We wanted to settle into Italy and live, temporarily, like locals. We wanted to get to know a neighborhood, to eat where the locals ate, learn new things, and watch one season replace another. We longed to plunge into a place and not just dip our toe in and then leave. Retirement gave us the time to make our dream come true.
I hope reading about our experiences will inspire others to try traveling for longer periods. In my opinion, the non-stop eight-day jaunts to three cities are crazy. On our way home from our year of travel, we spent a few days in Paris. We were sitting in a park outside the Louvre having an impromptu picnic, complete with glasses of wine. A sweaty, panting couple came and sat next to us, gobbling their sandwiches, and as we chatted with them, they explained they were part of a tour group and would only be in Paris one day. They split their morning between two sites, and in the afternoon, they thought they could cram in two more before they rejoined the tour group. That sort of travel is what Dave and I came to call the “Tourist Death March.” It is hurried, hectic, and rushed with no time to breathe.
Maybe travel doesn’t have to be a jam-packed sprint. There is a lot to be said for settling into a place and getting beyond the surface instead of racing to the Top Ten Attractions touted in every guidebook and every blog. I truly believe you get a better sense of Paris sitting in a park drinking a glass of wine or walking along the Seine or trying pastry at a patisserie than you do rushing to get to the Arc de Triumph or the Eiffel Tower.
Not everyone can travel for weeks or months at a time. Still, even if you only have a few days, my advice is to spend less time rushing and at least part of the time just walking, sitting, following whatever street looks interesting, and stopping for a coffee at any café with an open table in the sun. Go to the tourist spots, but on the way, stop and soak it in a little, dawdle, loiter and linger. A trip should make time for deliberation and daydreaming. I love Virginia Woolf’s idea of real travel:
“By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”
IN THE BEGINNING
My first ever trip overseas was to London in 1999 at age 38 with my then-boyfriend. I was thrilled with my new, blank passport. Three years later, I made another overseas trip, this time all alone, after breaking up with my boyfriend. Deep down, it terrified me to go to a foreign country by myself, but I was determined. Since middle school, I had dreamed of Venice after finding a magazine article showing a Venice full of old palazzos, bridges, churches, pigeons, gondolas, canals, piazzas, dark alleys, and most of all, water—sparkling bright water. I wanted to see Venice for myself before it sank into the lagoon it was built on. Growing up in a small Midwestern town, far from the ocean, I almost couldn’t believe such a place could be real. My first trip to Venice lasted only four short days because that was all I could afford. Once there, I wandered, got lost in the labyrinth of alleys, and saw the canals' shimmering water reflecting the sky and the clouds. I didn’t want to leave this storybook land. I was in love.
In 2004 when Dave and I got married, a second marriage for both of us, we began traveling overseas together, starting with a honeymoon in Paris. Dave was eager to use his new, blank passport for his first trip out of the country. We traveled to Rome, Florence, Munich, and one year we went to Venice so I could share my favorite city with my husband. He loved it almost as much as I did. Dave and I traveled well together. Neither of us cared about the hotel (as long as it was clean) because the hotel was just the place to sleep. Both of us could eat and drink anything and were eager to try new foods. We agreed that the real fun of any trip was to see and do things.
However, as much as I liked to travel, I wasn’t genuinely adventurous or brave. For me, every trip involved hours of research, guidebooks, and maps to keep all risks to a minimum. I made sure to carry a folder that included details of every flight, every hotel reservation, and every planned event of the trip. I made lists. Dave was the calm one when we traveled because he knew I had prepared and double-checked every element of the journey.
For years, in between our short trips overseas, Dave and I started talking about a different kind of trip, a long-term trip. Both of us loved the food, wine, and people of Italy, and we began talking/dreaming about someday living in Italy for an entire year. We named this dream our Beautiful Dream—our “Bel Sogno.”
In 2009 we had just returned from a short trip to Florence when I opened a bottle of wine and took it out to the patio where Dave was sitting.
“Florence was amazing. We crammed a lot into a short trip,” I said, pouring wine for each of us.
“Yeah, every single day was a rush. It wasn’t a relaxing trip, but with only five days, there isn’t time to relax.”
“Exactly. Every short trip we take makes me dream even more about our Bel Sogno.
Dave smiled. “No jet lag!”
“We would have time to relax, to linger, to explore, to just be. I twirled my wineglass, picturing this potential life. After years of reading every travel memoir book I could get my hands on, I dreamed of staying in one place and becoming known to neighbors and to shopkeepers where I bought groceries. I wanted to experience different cities and countries below the surface and not just skim along the top. I imagined discovering the small neighborhood restaurants tourists never had time to find.
“Where would we live for our year?” Dave said, interrupting my fantasy. I brought my mind back to reality and picked up the wine bottle to pour a little more wine.
“I don’t know. Let’s figure out the details with our next bottle of wine. It will be years before we have to decide.”
But change came sooner than either of us expected. In 2016 Dave became eligible for early retirement and was offered a buyout from his job. It was a hard decision to make. We could have kept working and building up our retirement funds. That would have been the wise thing to do. That would be the advice of most financial planners. But my scripted life had already lurched out of control in 2013 when I found out I had Type 1 diabetes. Now my days involved multiple insulin shots, visits with an endocrinologist, and lots of supplies and equipment. The good health I had taken for granted my whole life vanished, leaving me to learn how to manage a chronic condition. It was challenging. People lived for decades with diabetes, so it wasn’t a death sentence, but now time felt more precious, life more fragile, and I didn’t want to waste one second of whatever active time I had left. Despite my diabetes, I was still reasonably young and healthy. Early retirement would give us a chance to do the things the two of us had been dreaming about for years.
So the decision was made.
We dusted off the Bel Sogno plan and plunged into a year of turning it into reality. At our “mature” age, we were ready to shake up the routines and put our everyday lives on hold, surprising our blended family of five grown children, who questioned us closely about our plans. Of course, I made sure we started out with a plan and a detailed list. We agreed to leave the U.S. in September 2017 and go to Rome in central Italy for six months to spend the fall and winter. Then in 2018, as the weather warmed up, we would move north for six months to Venice to spend the spring and summer before returning to the U.S. in 2018.
Like giddy kids, we bought two one-way tickets to Rome.