For this story to make any sense we must rewind the clock three years to November 2018. Matt and I had been searching, unsuccessfully, for months for a place to call “home-base,” after years of traveling, non-stop and nomadically, around the world. After living in other people’s spaces and rental apartments, from Myanmar to Morocco and Cuba to Jordan, we were ready for a sliver of space to call our own and to make an investment in our future. I guess, quite naturally, after so much motion, we found ourselves yearning for a bit of stability – stillness, even.
We had pinned this wild, privileged dream to the Tuscan city of Lucca for many reasons, including livability, proximity to sea, mountains and airport, and – naturally – the stunning landscape, beautiful language, and welcoming culture. Italy had more than convinced us it was time to drop those heavy backpacks – like hot potatoes, y’all! – and put our passion for place to the test. It amazes me now that we made this decision a full two years before I would learn that my maternal great-grandparents (bisnonni in Italian) Domenico and Jeanne Iaquesso had immigrated to the US from Italy in 1904 and my mother is 43% Italian, according to recent DNA testing. Though I had no clue to this heritage before, I now know my roots are solidly Italian. It explains so much, truly.
Okay, back to Mission: Home-Base Lucca. During this time, we viewed nearly 40 apartments and, though some were infatuation-worthy, we couldn’t seem to capture that elusive and exclusive this the one feeling and weren’t willing to settle for anything less. It had to be knock-me-over, love-at-first-sight. Our 90-day tourist visas were ticking down, requiring us to leave the country soon, when our trusty agent Lorrain called. “Are you still here in Lucca?” she asked. “I got a call about an apartment that sounds interesting. It goes on the market next week, so let’s get in and see first.”
With characteristic Tuscan charm – like those gorgeous handmade floor tiles by Lucca’s 100-year-old A. Tessieri & Co. – and a balcony with expansive views, the apartment turned out to be everything we had dreamed.
Our crazy experience was filmed for an episode of the international hit program House Hunters International (which, I must say, was a rewarding endeavor, top to bottom, with an incredibly professional and creative crew. Oh, the fun we had together filming around Lucca)! Though the wait to hear if our offer was accepted was only a day, it felt like forever. Minutes crept by. Thankfully, all went well and by late Spring, we were moving into Casa Angelini (so named in honor of the lovely seller, a signora who had lived there for decades and kindly welcomed us into the home). During the three months to follow, we launched full renovations while, at the same time, struggling to obtain the necessary residency visas, though we were told we met all criteria. As the project grew – as projects do – pressure mounted.
If you aren’t familiar with where our story goes from here, you might ask, “So, after all those renovations, how has it felt to live in that dream apartment these last three years?” Well, honestly, I wish we could tell you! Don’t worry, I am laughing as I type. What else can you do, right? As we all know, the C-word (you know the one) would soon have other plans for us along with every being on the planet.
As it turns out, stillness would be our most elusive dream of all.
Living Nomadically In a Pandemic-Plunged World
Here’s what’s happened since our House Hunters International filming.
It was New Year’s Eve and Matt and I rang in the occasion in Lucca with toasts to a new year filled with rejuvenation and grounding. As we were soon to learn, that joke was on us. The calm of home we craved turned out to be far from what 2020 delivered. After failing to obtain necessary visas, in late January – before our collective vocabulary expanded to include terms like social-distancing, herd immunity and PCR – Matt and I left our new apartment to embark on a head-spinning journey, living across the Mediterranean while navigating advancing global pandemic and gaining a strange perspective on living nomadically in a world of closing borders.
To be clear: If our tourist visas had not expired, we would never had chosen to travel in 2020, especially once Covid hit crisis levels in March. Having our residency visas denied meant leaving Europe’s Schengen Zone every 90-days. Where can we live for the required three-month absence? became the question propelling us forward. We ruled out returning to our birth country as our Cigna global health insurance policy provided coverage everywhere in the world with one exception – yep, the U.S. – in addition, the home we owned there was occupied by long-term renters. Also, we still clung to hope our visas would be granted and we could return to Italy.
A direct flight to Cyprus was the ticket. We rented an apartment by the month, met neighbors, joined a gym, and began settling into the island’s rhythms as news of a virus began to spread. With two days’ notice, on March 15, we entered one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, with closure of Cyprus airports and mandatory house confinement soon to follow. For the next couple of months, leaving the house meant texting a government line for permission to exit for specified reasons – grocery store, pharmacy, doctor, or (thankfully) solo exercise. Every day, we held our breath while waiting for response granting permission for one hour of precious freedom to run, walk or cycle while breathing sea air. It was intense and frightening, at times. We were filled with uncertainty. How long would it be before the airports reopened…a month? A year? In worst case scenario, could we as non-residents, get the necessarily healthcare? Would we ever return to Italy? There was even a rumor that the island’s food supply was a risk.
Thankfully, Cyprus’ leadership was clear and direct. We were all in this together, that was the consistent message. There’s hardly a place in the world which would have been safer or more welcoming for us than Cyprus and I cannot say enough about the generosity and care of the Cypriot people. I will always be grateful and hold the island nation closely in my heart (and, hope to return one day soon).
In July, six months and three failed flight attempts later, we landed in Italy again; this time, double-masked, slathered in hand sanitizer and clutching negative Covid tests. After much fretting, the journey was seamless and safe. We watched sunset on that warm evening from our balcony, overjoyed to isolate in our own home after such an absence.
When we emerged from quarantine, we found a country deeply-shaken by the events of recent months and grappling to reclaim some semblance of life. Italy’s strict lockdown had eased, and, though many necessary restrictions remained, virus cases were dropping and relief was palpable. Locals, together with European visitors, basked in summer’s sunshine, filling outdoor cafes and enjoying long walks and bike rides. Life seemed to be regaining some sense of normalcy, cautious optimism prevailed.
As fall approached and we still had no new visa news, the 90-day clock ticked down again and the virus’ second wave swelled. The world’s borders began closing again. That necessary question – Where can we live for three months? – would once again propel us forward, as options narrowed with every passing day.
This seems like a good time to mention a point I try to get across as often as possible: we fully realize how highly-privileged we are to live this lifestyle and have these type of “problems.” Being quasi-stateless for the last six years has been our choice. But, for those interested in how this life looks beyond beautiful Instagram images, the truth is often messy and complicated. Of course, the pandemic has only amplified the inherent complications. We were always fretting if we were making the right choices or if there was something more we could do to ensure our own safety as well as those around us.
Okay, back to our ticking clock. On day 89, with negative Covid tests in hand, a friend drove us to Croatia, one of the few countries still granting entry to Americans as well as European tourists. Not long after arriving in Istria, an outdoor mecca known as the “Tuscany of Croatia,” the area was designated as Europe’s only Covid “Green Zone,” which ensured a continuous streams of Northern European road-trippers. From an apartment by the sea, we watched as temperatures declined and virus cases rose; tourist streams soon slowed to trickles. With help from our host family, we received permission from the local police department to overstay our visas there, if necessary. Like in Cyprus, Croatia made us feel safe and welcome.
By early November, borders closed again and Croatia entered a new phase of lockdown about the same time as our House Hunters International episode first aired. As waves of messages poured in, from friends and strangers alike, offering congratulations on our move , we raised our glasses with a toast in hopes of returning to that home…but, who knows when.
It would be four months before we crossed the border, negative tests in hand once again, and returned to Lucca.
A few weeks after arriving, we received news we had long waited to hear:
Our residency visas had been granted and we could live in the place we both love. We could be still in Italy.
Why am I recapping all of this now? Because, after all this drama and trauma, we have news that will probably surprise you – as it has come as a surprise to us, too!
WE (UNEXPECTEDLY) SOLD THAT BEAUTIFUL LITTLE APARTMENT IN LUCCA
Yep, just as we were getting grounded, we’ve gone and turned our lives upside down, again! Upon hearing this news, our wise-as-an-owl friend Pablo said, “You don’t know how to be still.” And, while there’s much truth there, it’s hardly that simple.
As summer began to fade, we had been living in the apartment for eight months, the longest time we have stayed in one place since leaving the U.S. to begin this adventure in 2015. We were exhausted from all the years of nomadism, the long-battle to obtain visas, and the endless cycle of pandemic lockdowns and contagion worries. Moving again was the last thing on either of our minds. Matt was enjoying cycling and discovering new areas and routes. I threw myself into writing and running. In addition, I was also helping two sets of friends (one in London; the other California) in finding their dream apartments in Lucca. Since I love all things real estate, I had offered to look at places on their behalf.
As with our search, their top criteria was outdoor space, which is a premium in Lucca as less than 10% of apartments in the city center have a terrace, balcony or garden. Like we had been, our friends were also willing to opt for smaller living space in order to gain that shiny unicorn known as outdoor space.
Maybe you already see where this is going?
I was enjoying going behind-the-scenes with agents and exploring new spaces, streets and neighborhoods. One afternoon, while meeting Lorrain to view another apartment, I noticed a listing in her agency Novecento’s window. The image was of an enormous terrace with views of the surrounding mountains and Serchio River. I couldn’t help but ask. “It’s directly on the river, ten minutes outside of town,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe this place!”
As we walked to the appointment, she told me about the artist who owns the home. “The house is filled with his work,” she continued. “You have got to see it.” And, that’s how what we now refer to as “River Fever” began. I got home and proceeded to talk Matt’s ear off about the view and, once he was able to get a word in, his response surprised me. “I’ve always been curious about those houses along that stretch of river. We should go look.”
“Wait, for us?” I asked, incredulously and with bad grammar. “You’re the one who brought it up,” he fired back. The next thing we knew, we were standing in the lounge with the artist Maurizio Telerma beginning a tour of his (crazy-beautiful) river home.
The full-on flirtation commenced. We began fantasizing about all the space of that three-story independent house (four times bigger than Casa Angelini)! I even had a ridiculously funny dream about sneaking into the house to spend a night without the owner’s knowledge. He busted me there the next morning as I desperately tried to unclog a toilet after accidentally flushing a hand towel. I was wearing a bathrobe, clay mud mask and pink sponge rollers in my hair. I guess the dreaming-me had already moved in.
Dreams began swirling in real time, as well. Just imagine: Matt could have a bike room and workshop. I could create a light-filled art studio. Sweet goodness, I could finally have a dedicated writing space (as opposed to dining room tables the world over)…a writing room, complete with door!
It was an exciting fantasy, yet it wasn’t long before the fever broke. As beautiful as it was, it more villa than house – with a price tag to match that heady label. And, really, what would we do with that much space? Besides, what do we know about riverside living (zero is that answer). We decided that pink rollers and river views aren’t in our future, at least our near future.
Here’s where things get interesting, though. During this whirlwind romance, winds of change began to flutter. We began acknowledging how much the pandemic had changed our lifestyle. Having lived through lockdowns in countries with the world’s tightest restrictions, we – like so many others – were re-evaluating the importance of living space. Like most of the planet, we were spending more time than ever at home. Restaurants were more rare treat than daily ritual. Jet-setting days seemed like sepia-toned postcards. We began to put it out there, only to each other and close friends, that at “some point in the future,” we will consider selling this apartment we love. “A year or two, maybe three down the road, we will search for a new home.”
Here Comes the Offer(s)
Meanwhile, Lorrain – as industrious as ever – wanted us to have that river-fever dream if that’s what we wanted. “What’s the asking price you would hope to get on your apartment,” she asked. We gave her a number that we felt reflected all the hard work, premium materials and creative design that went into the renovation. Plus, you know, the view!
A few days later, she asked if she could show the apartment to couple. We laughed and said, “Sure, why not?” Looking back on it, we really were being daft and didn’t put much thought into at all. We simply – and rather naively – saw it as an opportunity to gather feedback for ‘that future day’ when we were to actually list the property.
You definitely see where this is going, right?
“Are you sitting down?” was the first thing she said when she called an hour after the viewing. “They want to buy it, for your asking price, and they want the furniture, too. Basically, they want you to take your personal items and go.” I’m paraphrasing a bit, but that was the gist of the conversation. They planned to put the offer in the writing the next morning.
“Wait, what did you say?” we asked as if there was a language barrier. We were in shock and told Lorrain we weren’t sure and needed time to think this through. You can imagine her reaction! “But, you told me to show it!…(insert expletives liberally).,
We asked for the couple to hold off on their offer — their full-price offer — who does that?!
We promised to make the decision over the weekend. We knew if selling the apartment was even remotely a consideration, we had to tell our friends who were searching for their own apartments. “Wait, you’re selling your place?” our California friends asked in disbelief. “But, you love that apartment!” There’s no doubt about that, we told them. But, maybe this is a sign. Maybe, it’s the right time to move on from this space which, for us, is very much rooted in transition and, quite frankly, struggle. Maybe it’s time for a new space to begin a new phase. Maybe it’s time to drop the “base” and find HOME.
“Well, if there’s any chance it’s for sale, we want it,” they told us with no reservation. From that point, we basically locked ourselves inside (okay, well, outside on the terrace) with a few bottles of wine and spent the next three days turning it over and talking it through – plus, laughing, fretting and dreaming.
By Monday, we had decided to take another leap. Two days later, we accepted a generous offer from California. And, to sweeten the deal, the friends also offered us ample time between the initial and final closings to find our next renovation project and dreaming space!
Navigating the Path Forward with Open Mind and Fast Feet
Days after accepting the offer, we set out on a road-trip to northern Italy for a house-sitting assignment near Belluno and to visit friends in Trentino. We told ourselves to keep an open mind. Who knows, maybe we would stumble upon a new home in one of those regions. We took the opportunity of having a rental car to explore coastal towns along the way, too. “What if we discover a small town with a sweet vibe along the train line from Lucca?” we wondered. We were open to all options at that point. At least that’s what we told ourselves.
We laugh about that brief interlude now, because it was only two weeks into the trip when we both began to miss Lucca. “I’m ready to go home,” I confessed to Matt. “Me too!” he answered.
After turning in the rental car, as we walked back through the city gates, we came across one friend after another, by chance. “You’re back!” yelled one of Matt’s cycling buds. The owner of our favorite neighborhood cafe, called out our names, smiled brightly and said, “Welcome home!” Even the guy who owns the hardware store walked out to question our whereabouts. “I thought you had left the country again.”
To miss a place, and to be missed, is an incredible feeling. I guess in the process of struggling to claim Lucca as home, it really has become just that. For all the reasons we choose the city to begin with and all the reasons we have come to appreciate during these last three years of part-time residency. Lucca is our place in the world, at least for now.
Like always, we have thrown ourselves into this new project, viewing apartments and houses of all shapes and sizes, inside the city center and up to 3 km beyond. We’ve seen everything from newly-constructed shells awaiting build-out to 500-year old villas desperately in need of renovation and from sleek urban chic to country-living charm – and everything in between. We look forward to taking you along for the ride!
You know we don’t let grass grow under our feet, so expect an update SOON! In the meantime, I will begin sharing some of the properties, images, and stories from the search on the LightTraveling Facebook page and look forward to hearing your feedback.
Where we will end up is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that we will continue to enjoy every moment in this beautiful little apartment that has served as launchpad for life in Italy. And, when the time comes in spring, we will had over the keys with joy to our friends who will love and care for it as we have.