Retiring abroad: a retirement adventure in Italy

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Retiring abroad is a long-held dream of baby boomers around the world, and in the past we’ve talked to three boomers who have taken the plunge and made their retirement homes in a new country: Loren Chudy in France, Sue Martin in Spain and Allan Prout in Mexico. This time, we talk to an Australian boomer who found her dream home in Italy – with a few bumps along the way.

Ever since celebrating her 22nd birthday in Rome, Winnifred Cozijn-Rosser had been trying to find a way to live permanently in Italy. DespiteWinnifred Cozijn-Rosser and David Malloch retiring abroad two half-Italian daughters, innumerable visits and a couple of failed marriages, she says, it took almost 40 years and a honeymoon with David Malloch, her third husband, to make the dream come true.

Today, she and David (seen here in one of their favourite local restaurants) are happily settled in their new home in Polinago, a small town in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. However, the transition was anything but smooth, and anyone considering retiring abroad can learn a few lessons from their experiences, as you’ll see.

Still, they both say they’re happy with their decision to leave Canberra for the comforts of small-town life in Italy (and of course, the food). And they keep busy by running their own B&B and publishing their website, Oz in Italy, which details their experiences. But I’ll let Winnifred tell the story first-hand:

Travelling Boomer  How did you decide to leave Australia and make Italy your new home? 

Winnifred  It was on our honeymoon. It was David’s first visit to Italy, and driving from Venice to Provence, we decided to stay in the small town of Aquaria in the Province of Modena — part of the region of Emilia Romagna. We liked the area, and we were starting to think about moving to Italy.

For me, anywhere in Italy would do. But David, who is a classic car fan, liked the idea that the city of Modena is where Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati cars are produced. Prices for real estate in the area were a fraction of those in nearby Tuscany, and living anywhere from Rome southwards meant travelling the length of Italy if we wanted to go anywhere else in Europe.

In May, 2010 while visiting Italy again, we set aside three days to look at properties in the Tuscan-Emiliano border area. It only took one day and three properties before David declared: “The house and land in Polinago ticks every box for all I have ever wanted.” By the end of the week a deposit had been paid and we were on our way to Paris by train.

TB  Did you intend to make this your retirement home when you bought the property?

Winnifred  Not at all. At this point there had been no real discussion how this was all going to work: we had jobs, children and family in various cities in Australia, and now a ruin of a farm house on 13.5 acres in Italy. But half-way through the seven-hour train journey, David finally said: “What about we sell up and just move and start a new life in Italy?”

So that’s what we did. We came back in November to complete the sale, and then again in April, before moving in permanently in late June, 2011.

TB  Tell us about the problems you encountered starting your new life.

Winnifred  We did everything you shouldn’t do. For any building and restoration works in Italy, one is obliged to employ a Geometra. This is a cross between a surveyor and project manager who is engaged to ensure that the builder delivers the project as required.

We trusted our real estate agent to introduce us to someone, but we realized within weeks of our permanent arrival that there was something retiring abroad Winnifred with the barnabout him we couldn’t quite trust. This despite my speaking reasonably fluent Italian. And in our haste, we had signed contracts with him and the builder he was to use.

By Christmas we had stopped all work on the project as we realized that he was not only the Geometra but the builder as well! So we were being manipulated and charged exorbitant prices, the builders were just labourers, occupational health and safety rules were not being followed, and we were constantly hounded for payments which did not seem commensurate with the work being done.

We took our case before a tribunal, a process that took over 18 months. The tribunal found in our favour and we were able to cancel both contracts, but didn’t receive any refund of the excess euros spent. By then, all we had was the remains of the original stable (right), new foundations, half a wall and not much else. For the same money we could have purchased a habitable house with some land.

TB  Where did you finally land?

Winnifred  We stayed in Polinago. We had been renting a small flat in the town which enabled us to get to know the locals and when our lease was up a year later, we set out to find a larger place where we could start the B&B and stop leaking money. That was another adventure, since particularly here in the mountains, no-one advertises rental properties: as someone said, ‘you don’t want people to know your business’. (I’d say you don’t want the tax department to know your business.)

We put out the word that we were looking for somewhere which we could turn in the B&B. Each place we inspected was packed to the rafters with furniture and such because no-one throws anything away! We finally found this lovely home right in town which again, has really made it easy for us to become a part of the community.

TB  Now that you’re settled, what do you like best about living in Italy?

Winnifred  When I ask David this question, his reply is: “It’s not Australia”. For me it’s difficult to put into words. It’s the slower pace; even in the cities, there is still always time for human interaction, for a quick coffee at the local bar and a chat. Generally, Italians are inquisitive and will talk about anything and everything. Privacy is really not something they understand.

Here in the mountains, materialism isn’t yet at the levels of Australia, the U.S.A. and other such countries. On most occasions gifts consist of food, chocolate, flowers or plants. Children don’t receive the mountains of gifts as elsewhere on their birthdays or for Christmas.

Italy has at least 3,000 years of history; we came from a country with not even 250 years of white man’s history. Here there is an inherent depth and quality to the culture and way of life.

TB  What cultural differences did you have to get accustomed to?

Winnifred  First, there’s a certain way of doing business: you can’t ask something directly. There is always the general conversation about family, health, soccer, food and then finally the reason you are meeting and the question you wish to ask. Also, we quickly learned we had to lower our expectations as to how much could be achieved in a day. Doing the simplest task takes time — everything requires a conversation.

As well, you can be sure that everyone in town knows what you are doing. It is unlikely that you could be dead or injured in your apartment for months here because no one realized you hadn’t been seen. I collapsed at the doctor’s surgery one evening: by the time I arrived in the emergency department, messages were coming through on my cell phone asking if I was alright, and what about David?

Regarding medical care, as an Italian citizen (through a former marriage) I receive the same universal health care as the locals. So does David, because he has a Permesso di Sogiorno (Permission to Stay). We are currently in the process of obtaining citizenship for him as well. The most difficult thing for him has been passing the Italian driver’s test without speaking the language well.

TB  How have you adjusted to the local way of life?

Winnifred  Very well. David is the town photographer whenever there are functions or parades. I have chaired and been deputy chair of several committees. We have made friends with many people in the town and are greeted warmly in the street, especially our Cavalier King Winnifred and David with Marty at Cherry BnB retiring abroadCharles dog, Marty (seen here, with Winnifred and David at their B&B). Incidentally, Marty had to learn Italian — initially he wouldn’t stop when people spoke to him as he definitely couldn’t understand they were talking to him.

I also give English conversation classes to many of the school children and young adults wishing to extend their career prospects, and on occasion I’ve mentored a number of them. David fixes electronic devices, helps the old ladies whenever they seem to wipe something off their tablets or iPhones, and helps with the creating of web sites. 

TB  What’s your day like in Polinago?

Winnifred  This depends on whether we have guests staying at our B&B. Usually we take our guests (the majority are Australians) down into the village and show them around, explaining the way of life here, and finish up having a coffee or hot chocolate at Anna’s Bar.

We tend to purchase our fresh fruit and vegetables from the small market held in town each Thursday and Sunday. There has been a Thursday market in Polinago since 1614!  And we frequently go to the local butcher, which is staffed only by women. As the cuts of meat are quite different, I very often ask which cut I should use for a dish, or for a suggestion of what to cook. In this way I am slowly learning to cook the local dishes.

We also visit the town of Pavullo, approximately 20 minutes away, to shop at the supermarket or the weekly Saturday market. And we often visit Modena or Bologna if we have visitors, as well as some of the lovely small towns here in the mountains.

TB  What problems do you see for the future?

Winnifred  We are very concerned for the economic future of this particular area of Emilia Romagna. Local tourism has never been promoted, as most locals cannot see the intrinsic value of this area other than for agriculture (though some have now started to see it through our eyes). Employment opportunities are limited, and the young people are leaving the towns. And yet here one finds some of Italy’s most beautiful scenery, wonderful built heritage and fascinating local culture. In the summer months there are many small town festivals that you’d never see visiting the large cities or towns.

If we can expand the tourism industry here, it would certainly provide jobs for the young people. We currently collaborate with a delightful young couple who work as walking and snowshoe guides, and another young woman who provides cooking classes on the weekend.

As we have spent most of our retirement savings, we are busy promoting Cherry House, our B&B, as well as running tailor-made, small group tours in order to earn an income. We have been quite successful in bringing Australian visitors to the area.

And since for financial reasons we are unable to finish building our house, we are now planning to sell fractional ownership of the project. If successful, this could hopefully see more investment in this area, create more jobs in the building industry and keep more young people in the towns. It would also provide us with our own place to live and a small income, as we would be the on-site managers.

Emilia Romagna countryside reiring abroad

TB  Is there anything you miss about your old home?

Winnifred  David would immediately answer with crunchy peanut butter and Tim Tams (an Australian chocolate biscuit) and for me delicious, fresh Australian prawns and mangoes. Apart from that, nothing really other than our children and friends, but they all come and visit from time to time.

TB  Would you move back home permanently?

Winnifred  David had a very successful business career and lived in Canberra for over 30 years. On meeting me, he realized he wanted to do something else with his life. He, too now finds that he doesn’t really miss the Australian way of life and just loves living here in Polinago. He is happy to spend the rest of his days here, although in life one never knows.

I came to Australia as a child from Indonesia, grew up in Perth and have lived in Italy, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne and ultimately in Canberra. And Canberra was good to me: I was honoured to receive an Order of Australia for my volunteer work to get the National Museum of Australia built, was chair of the Heritage Council and then president of a political party. Still, I didn’t want to die in Canberra.

I have found my spot against the lovely stone wall of the ancient church yard in Gombola, which I have requested to be my final resting place. My soul is finally home, where it has wanted to be since that first time back in 1972 when I first visited Rome.

A last word

Winnifred and David’s story makes a few valuable points about retiring abroad. First, experts advise living in the area you’ve chosen for a few months before you decide to buy, a strategy that could have saved this couple some grief. As well, choose your renovators carefully if you need to have work done: get multiple references. And be sure you understand the local laws and regulations before going ahead with major projects.

In the end, though, Winnifred and David are still in love with Emilia Romagna, and looking to the future. Just as importantly, they’re involved with the community and making a contribution — and that’s a good way to ensure a fulfilling retirement.

Finally, if you have an interesting story to tell about your retirement abroad, send me a message at marshman.paul@gmail.com and perhaps we’ll feature you in a future post.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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