Life Lessons in Southern Italy: It’s the Simple, Stupid

Barrel / botteSeven and a half years ago, I leaped off a path that was leading me to a place I didn’t want to go as a person I didn’t want to become. I was living in a large American city armed with a law degree and a recently completed appellate judicial clerkship. The next logical, practical step was a position with a large law firm — or at least some well-paying attorney job.

The only problem was that years before, I had already stopped wanting the so-called American Dream — the bigger house, the bigger car, the bigger and more more more. Something about it just didn’t feel right for me, and I needed to get far, far away from it. Literally.

Maybe by putting this physical distance between us, I was making sure I wouldn’t somehow get sucked in by staying too close. Maybe I just needed a break after 21 consecutive years of schooling (out of my 25 total years). Whatever the reason, moving to my ancestors’ village in southern Italy in 2003 made total sense to me. I came here knowing full well what I wanted to get away from.

What I didn’t know, or at least I hadn’t verbalized, was what I was searching for.

Over the past several months, I’ve been reading minimalist/lifestyle blogs such as Zen Habits, Rowdy Kittens, The Art of Non-Conformity, and Ridiculously Extraordinary, and with each post and “Aha!” moment, the realization has become clearer. The things they’re writing about so beautifully? I’ve been living them for the past seven and a half years. It was simplicity I had been seeking, and I most certainly found it here.

Or, as I like to put it, “It’s the simple, stupid.”

Aside from work obligations, my life now revolves around what the humans need (mostly lunch and dinner) and what the animals need, not necessarily in that order. I shop at the market nearly every day for fresh ingredients, never keeping huge stockpiles of anything — not only because there’s no Costco, but also because there’s very little storage space in a typical Italian house. Everything is smaller in Italy (think opposite of Texas), so your refrigerator and freezer don’t hold as much, your washer does what you used to think were half-loads, and your dryer? Well you probably don’t even have a clothes dryer, but if you do, you use it sparingly because your bank account groans with each spin cycle.

FontanaIn fact, the scar from your first winter ENEL bill is still so fresh, you remember to turn the light off as you leave a room each and every time — and your late grandfather’s voice echoes in your mind as you go around flicking off lights muttering something about not owning stock in the electric company. Actually, you pretty much only use artificial light before dawn and after dusk, and you also opt for natural air conditioning (open windows and balcony doors) and insulation (more layers of clothes and gratuitous snuggling).

And because in the height of summer, mountain springs dry up and pathetic ditches they call river beds suddenly appear roadside, your dishwater waters plants, and even then only when the sun isn’t beating down and only when they absolutely need it.

You get creative about reusing everything you can from coffee grounds to plastic containers of all shapes and sizes; who knew those huge plastic jugs of American coffee sold in bulk (thanks Mom!) are absolutely perfect for scooping goat chow out of a feed bag?!

You learn that growing and raising much of your food is not only great for your wallet and waistline, it’s also relaxing for your mind and spirit as you go about your daily chores; moreover, taking care of living things from birth to death whether it’s a rabbit or a tomato plant reminds you to be present in each moment because life — for all of us — is fleeting.

Perhaps best of all, you truly, truly appreciate the small stuff — after all, most days, that’s all you have. And it’s plenty. Sure, trips to exotic locations make for good Bucket List filler, but have you ever watched a hen flipping and flopping around during her morning dirt bath? Nothing like it in the world, I tell you. Nothing.

Yes, it was always the simple, stupid. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, and so much more.

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  1. Gil
    02.17.2011

    What a heart warming post! I’m so glad that your move has been so successful for you.

    Thanks so much Gil!

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  2. 02.17.2011

    Amen sister. Beautifully written and answers that age old question: “Why did she give up a big law career to go live in her ancestors’ village in Calabria?” once and for all. But more than that, this post is soul feeding and reminds the reader of what is really important – touching our own vulnerability and being honest – with ourselves and with the greater world. Having one’s average day reduced to the chores of survival is not just humbling, it’s also necessary in order to understand the answer that other age old question: “How does the world REALLY work?” And that question does not get answered with winning cases and maximizing billing hours. It gets answered in the mechanisms of much smaller, precious moments. As you well know.

    Being in touch with how the world, the natural world really works is humbling and instructive and to use your term “soul feeding” indeed; thanks so much for all your support, always cara xx

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  3. I hear you Michelle!!

    Even though I live in a bigger city, my life in Rome is completely different from my former life in Los Angeles. No comparison. None at all.

    So much of a lifestyle change is internal, but I do believe location can make a difference as well; thanks for commenting :)

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  4. 02.17.2011

    You have just described my lifestyle and that of my Calabrian parents before me. It was a lifestyle that was natural for them.
    I was lucky enough to be raised this way complete with compost heaps and chooks in the backyard (although having four kids means I need to stock up a bit more on foodstuffs).
    My adult kids now think in the same way, appreciate simplicity and don’t covet the latest gadgets the way their friends do. I couldn’t ask for more.

    Just lovely, Scintilla; thank you for sharing — and complimenti :)

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  5. 02.17.2011

    Its a journey of discovering one’s self. Thats certainly not what they teach you in a law firm, for sure. Returning to the basics, the simple life is as difficult now as in Thoreau’s time, and still just as looked-down-upon.

    Thoreau is certainly an inspiration :) Thanks for coming by!

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  6. 02.17.2011

    What a beautiful post!! Thanks for being so honest. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for most people and really captured what more and more people are thinking. Here’s to the simple! Salute!

    Thanks for coming by Pete!

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  7. 02.17.2011

    Sums it up perfectly! I have SO much less than I have ever had in my life & I am SO much happier than I have ever been. Your words touch every pore of my body because as you I HAD to leave. I could no longer breath “The MORE” was suffocating me. Your honesty & pureness puts a beauty on our daily life that is quite different than the one I at least lived before. Grazie mille!

    Thanks Maria; having fewer things has certainly helped me feel somehow freer as well :)

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  8. Emilia
    02.17.2011

    Exactly! I couldn’t agree more! When I visit home my mom just might find me sneaking wet laundry outside to hang on a make-shift line!

    Drying my clothes in the dryer didn’t happen for me when I was in America either….

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  9. How many people never get where you are? I don’t just mean in a small village in Italy ;) but the place you have reached in your mind, in your heart. I still see so many of the people I love most racing for the bigger house/car/vacation whatever, but they don’t seem happier. Maybe they need goats!

    I have nothing against people who want the “bigger” things out of life, but it’s that happiness part that gets me…that’s the most important thing IMHO, so if that’s what makes them happy, more power to them, right? Goats, however, can be helpful for just about everyone iMHO ;)

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  10. 02.17.2011

    So on the mark – it looks like I will be leaving Italy within the next six months but I have become accustomed to a way of life even here in Roma that is so different. I’m not sure how I will adapt to the next place we live in – only wish I knew where it will be – but I know I will pine for what I have here. And I only wish I had discovered this all sooner in my life.

    I am sure that you will find a wonderful balance and peace no matter where you physically end up, Willym; what you have here is now part of you :)

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  11. 02.17.2011

    Beautiful. Brava. We’re right there with you; life’s greatest pleasures come from the simple things.

    Can’t argue with that statement, Valerie :)

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  12. 02.17.2011

    I echo and agree with every thing you and others have already said here. There is something very very special about the different pace of life we are able to live and enjoy here in Italy. So well expressed Michelle.

    Thanks LindyLou; there is definitely a different feel to the pace of life around me here as opposed to in the US, I agree.

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  13. 02.17.2011

    I am waiting for the day I can give up my big law career and do this. No joke.

    May The Force be with you, Beth! ;)

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  14. 02.17.2011

    Beautifully put Michelle, the simpler life over here is food in all ways for the soul and makes for some amazing smiles, although that lack of cupboard space did make me buy a kindle!

    I have to admit, I probably would not be nearly as into e-books as I am if I had the choice of buying/storing real books at whim…*love* the feel of that book in the hand, but this is one of those “sacrifices” ;)

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  15. 02.17.2011

    Great post, Michelle. It sounds like you have not one single regret. I’ve been reading those blogs too, and am dreaming of the simple life. I’m now going to add “watch hen enjoy morning dirt bath” to my bucket list! :)

    Haha Kelly; it’s certainly a sight to see! Thanks for coming by :)

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  16. 02.17.2011

    Beautiful…I think simple is best. I hate keeping up with the Joneses!

    Lucy, I’m with you; trying to keep up with others is just no fun at all.

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  17. 02.17.2011

    Beautiful and totally true, Michelle. I spent my first year of marriage, 43 years ago, in Gaeta because my husband was stationed on a US Navy ship based there. We have not lived in Italy since but that experience informed the rest of our lives. We moved “back to the land” and have lived simply and happily ever after.

    I still remember the scene early in my Italian year of neighbors and the spazzino gathered around, animatedly discussing the trash we had put out for pickup. The spazzino collected the entire neighborhood’s trash in one big garbage can on wheels. We shopped in the “american store” provided by the navy so we had put out an american style quantity of packaging waste. The spazzino and neighbors were astounded. I was given a proper lecture. I never saw the world the same way again.

    LOVE that story, Anne; thanks so much for sharing and for coming by! Vivino, btw, is a very common name both in my hometown in PA and around here…is it Calabrese?

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  18. 02.17.2011

    Kudos to you Michelle for following your heart! I SO admire you girl and I love reading about your life! Love Love Love this (gratuitous snuggling)..he he! Your speaking to my heart also and I thank YOU for that! Enjoy your wonderful lovely simple life! Huggies to You and the Girls!

    Gratuitous snuggling is one of my favorite pastimes! Hahaha…thanks Pam, and hugs back at you :)

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  19. 02.17.2011

    ADORE this post! I always say: K.I.S.S. “keep it simple, stupid” I love the simple life. I aspire to it every day. I don’t want bigger, better anything. Well, that’s not true: I want (to feel & express) bigger, better gratitude for the things I am so lucky to have. I don’t look forward to anything besides watching my children grow & thrive. I just want to revel in the beauty of the moment. I realize it’s a true place of privilege I am in and just how lucky I am to be in it. xo

    Excellently put, Ninotchka; thanks so much for your support now and always :)

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  20. 02.17.2011

    This is the best thing I’ve seen you write on this blog! Wonderful! YES YES YES.
    It is really nice to see someone as young as you figure this stuff out.
    Brava! Now if you could just teach my husband!

    Hahaha thanks Mimi; as always, I appreciate your support :)

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  21. 02.17.2011

    ps those photos look like paintings! beautiful

    it’s all in the scenery here, Mimi, as you well know :)

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  22. 02.17.2011

    You make it sound so beautiful, just reading your post makes “Me” want to live there. :) Life is just as you describe it back in my husbands small town of Kasbah Tadla in Morocco.

    Thank you for stopping by, Zelia; I imagine that a small village in Morocco would have a lot in common with a small village in southern Italy — we’re quite close geographically!

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  23. 02.17.2011

    MIchelle I can fully understand the lure of living simply and as one with nature.

    I think you would like to read a new book about to be released called ” And I Shall have Peace There,” http://awaytogarden.com/book/, written by Margaret Roach, the former gardening editor of thr Martha Stewart empire wo gave up her high powered job in Manhattan to live on a small farm upstate NY. She also has a wonderful blog called ” A Way to Garden” http://awaytogarden.com/

    Thanks for the recommendation Pat; sounds lovely!

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  24. 02.17.2011

    Amen, soul sister. I lived this way abroad as well. It’s not always easy to live the way I do in DC, though. I have no choice & that may be part of it. But it is tiring to not be in sync w/friends & family. The fact that I don’t have a choice matters little to them. The only way I don’t feel awful every day is remembering my experiences elsewhere & my friends & acquaintances who live the same way.

    I hope you can find some peace, Susan; there’s a lot of what you’re saying that resonates with me as well (perhaps a future post) :)

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  25. 02.17.2011

    This is a great post…I’m so very happy for you. It is such a wonderful way of life over there.

    It certainly can be a wonderful way of life if it’s what you want and you follow through — although Italy certainly isn’t the magical ingredient in the simplicity formula for everyone :)

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  26. 02.18.2011

    this is great…I will be listing as one of my top 5 blog posts for the week….sounds lovely!

    Thanks Rosemary!

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  27. 02.18.2011

    Hi Michele,
    I like your thought process. You figured it out long before I did.

    Thanks Elizabeth, and thanks for coming by :)

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  28. Beautiful post, Michelle. What you said about not wanting the American Dream really resonated.

    I’m taking steps in a similar direction. Baby steps, but steps nonetheless.

    By the way, the smaller scale of Italian housing reminds me a lot of New York City apartments ;-)

    Yes! City apartments, especially in New York, can force one to make some serious choices as well hahaha; thanks for coming by!

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  29. saretta
    02.18.2011

    I’m glad you found your place in the universe!

    Thanks Saretta! Always nice to “see” you :)

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  30. What a lovely post, I am so pleased you found what you didn’t know you were looking for.

    Thank you, Sue; I am fortunate indeed :)

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  31. 02.18.2011

    Beautifully written, Michelle — the soul always knows what it wants, and you’ve discovered what your soul craves. Conscious effort to make life simpler is tough to do in the States, the culture here isn’t wired that way. In Italy, it’s easier to slow down and enjoy the moment, la dolce far niente, and why I instantly fell in love with the country and its people on my first visit back in 1995.

    Ciao.
    Michael

    Thank you, Michael; you’ve foreshadowed in your comment an upcoming post about the listening to the soul :)

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  32. 02.18.2011

    I couldn’t agree more. I had enough of the big house, big car thing – big possessions give big headaches!

    Big things can certainly be overwhelming for some, indeed; thanks for coming by, Polly!

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  33. 02.19.2011

    I am not a writer like you but just an old immigrant from Southern Italy. One does not have to live in Southern Italy to live a simple life. I lived and still live a simple life by choice and not by need.
    • My eating habits reflect my roots and cultural identity.
    • My instinctive frugality is reflected in our meals made from humble and seasonal ingredients.
    • We (my husband and I) have a vegetable garden, and we make our own wine. We love to eat at home unless there is a social invitation.
    • My thermostat is set at 60 degrees and wear double sweat pants to keep warm because I believe it’s healthier.
    • And like you, I do not seek to vacation in exotic places because I prefer the comforts of my home and the closeness of my family.
    “Yes, it was always the simple, stupid. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, and so much more.” If you can live on so little, why bother selling items on Zazzle? Why have you doubled your income this year? Why have you purchased land? Why write a book or novel? Maybe it’s your old American spirit!

    You’ve foreshadowed at least two upcoming posts, Elisa, about how one most certainly does not have to live in Italy (or anywhere specifically) to find simplicity; many people, however, did not grow up with such a lifestyle, so it’s not as easy for everyone to just decide to adopt it one day…for some of us, a change of scenery is useful in the process; for others we can incorporate small changes into daily life no matter where we live (this, indeed, will develop into my main focus in even discussing this aspect of my life — to help others appreciate what is their lives now and how they can make adjustments to find some clarity on what they want and how they want to live). Another related post will be about how simplicity is not “all or nothing,” and in the same vein (not sure yet if this will be a whole other post or not) about how living life while appreciating simple pleasures does not necessarily mean having no career goals or living like a pauper…even the Dalai Lama and my personal hero Thich Nhat Hanh are in social media, write books, etc. ;) Living a simple life and having a successful career are not mutually exclusive…in fact, regarding land and monetary success, one *does* need to own land in order to make her own olive oil and wine and be as self-sufficient as possible, and last I checked, no Calabrians were just handing over the plots that have been in their families for a hundred years because I arrive and say, “Hey, I’m here! I want to live like you!” My lesson of simplicity was learned in southern Italy with a strong influence from my family growing up (yes, another post)…thus the title and the content of this post, but all of the aspects I want to express couldn’t possibly fit into one short essay, so you’ll just have to stay tuned :)

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  34. 02.19.2011

    Your joy shines through in every word of this post–so inspiring to us all. I am in awe of your wisdom–AND that you have put it into practice! Brava!

    Thank you, Susan; I truly appreciate it :)

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  35. Michelle, beautifully written post! Simple lifestyle is the Best! It makes you appreciate & be thankful for what you have in life!

    Yes, appreciation for what you have is absolutely key; thanks for coming over, Sara!

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  36. 02.19.2011

    There is something peaceful about a life where you bake your own bread and cook just about everything from scratch. Every once in awhile I miss the cosmopolitan cities, especially if I need a new computer peripheral, but other than that the slow life in a provincial area of the Mediterranean can only be good for your soul. Besides, even if you don’t have the money to go to vacations, you’re already 1.5 km from the beach anyway.

    Ha, this is an excellent point about the beach! Where I am, we also have the mountains nearby, so we never have to go too far to feel like we’re on vacation :)

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  37. Ciao Michelle! Beautiful and inspiring words. From my heart, thank you for sharing this! I feel sometimes that life is so crazy day to day that I cannot grasp or hold onto the simplicity and beauty of the moment. I know a lot of that has to do with it being only about three and a half years since I’ve been in Italy compared to your seven and a half. It does take time to settle in, learn a new language and reach that point in your career where days don’t feel like battles. Or, perhaps, there are always days that feel like battles and it’s learning about how those days make us who we are, too? But just when I think things are too hectic and I don’t have time to find or enjoy the peace of the silent and beautiful place I live on the Amalfi Coast, I am struck with a moment just like this while taking care of our outdoor cats that love and depend on us, or watering the garden and growing fresh herbs … “Moreover, taking care of living things from birth to death whether it’s a rabbit or a tomato plant reminds you to be present in each moment because life — for all of us — is fleeting.” You’re right, that’s when I stop and take a deep breath and know what I’m doing and why. Thank you, Michelle!

    Laura, I have at least a whole post in response to this comment, but for now, let me assure you that the me of four years ago was so *not* ready to write the kinds of things I’m writing now or even to think the kinds of thoughts I’m thinking now; at least in my case, yes, things got much…calmer at a certain point :)

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  38. 02.19.2011

    Michelle, this is so spot-on, and I can totally relate, as it is for the same reasons I left my job as a magazine editor and my New York-suburban life to live on Martha’s Vineyard and be a food writer. I live on so much less now but am so much happier. (No clothes dryer–hanging clothes on the line is one of those zen things–love it.) And keeping things simple is my mantra. I feel lucky that I got unhappy enough to want to change my life radically, but many people linger far too long in malaise, not realizing they can make the changes and shed the dreck. I think your life, your food, and your goats are so inspiring that you might just help some folks make the jump–so keep writing!

    Thank you so much Susie; your encouragement means a lot to me. I love, too, that you have made a leap to more simplicity completely within the US and achieved much success — this is excellent for readers/potential simplifiers to know, that you don’t have to move to a foreign country to make a change BUT sometimes a small change in scenery can make a big difference too. Again, thank you.

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  39. 02.19.2011

    I can totally relate to this post. I recently told my husband “Okay, we made it. Why does it suck so bad?” I have come to the realize that a simpler life is a happier life. The more we accumulate the more we feel overwhelmed by everything we have around us…I feel overstimulated. I want to get back to life being about simple pleasures. I am going to check out those other blogs you recommend. Thanks for the motivation!

    Happy reading, Lisa! So much great stuff in those blogs :)

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  40. 02.19.2011

    your lovely post is getting me closer and closer to having the courage to “jump off” and live where i really want to live. thank you so much, you have no idea how influential your posts are. so glad i stumbled on to you and the other blogs in your circle of italian expat friends. :)

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Leslie; I hope that your journey continues to be fulfilling for you :)

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  41. 02.19.2011

    Thoughtful and beautifully written, Michelle! Livng with my Italian has reminded me of my original frugal roots as a missonary kid in Africa. Although we live in a suburb of a big American city, we still live a pretty simple life by comparison to so many. I’m grateful to him for bringing me back to sanity and making life joyful and more simple. Of course there is a long way to go (I should be gardening more!).

    Thank you.

    Thank you, AmyEmilia for reading and for sharing your experiences; I think most of us could stand to garden more!

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  42. 02.20.2011

    I have followed your blog on and off since you first started your journey in 2003. My ancestors are from Calabria as well so I have found your love for the land to be contagious. My husband & I plan to travel there next year opposed to trying some of the major cities as our first trip. Simple is truly the key to happiness in our opinion. Thank you for sharing!

    A girl after my own heart Stephanie; I headed to Calabria on my first trip to Italy and have never regretted it for one second :) Enjoy!

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  43. 02.21.2011

    Beautifully expressed! Everytime we get to the small town in Italy where our cooking school is located, I feel like I can breathe again. Congratulations on finding your “bliss”.

    Feeling like you can breathe again…yes…that is a perfect way of putting it; thanks Lael :)

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  44. Michelle: grazie for your heartwarming post! I actually had a reverse process: I moved from Italy to the US. I frequently think of what if we all moved back to Italy. We’re trying an experiment this summer for a few weeks. But who knows: maybe, hopefully, we get a real drive to move there for longer. Meanwhile, I try to keep a piece of Italy in my life day after day, here in a big US city, and my children, who are now bilingual, have an innate sense of Italianity (a certain penchant for simple things in life) in them….so I hope!

    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences, Amelia; I look forward to learning more about you!

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  45. 02.21.2011

    Thanks for sharing those blogs that offer a plan/insight on simplicity—something I desperately need to get to. I love your journey and effort to make life a beautiful place! I can go on and on all things that weigh me down, but I won’t bore you! :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Kisses.

    Don’t worry — I wouldn’t be bored. A response on your blog would be lovely to read in fact :)

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  46. 02.21.2011

    oh, and i took a picture of a water spout just like that in the countryside of France, near Lye. I want to find it now! :)

    We have these fountains outside of every church in the village and then some…but this one is particularly cute :)

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  47. Jen
    02.22.2011

    Beautiful post! My husband and I are currently in the process of leaving Italy, but looking for much of the same. We are in Milan, where the “more more more” lifestyle is just as present as in the US. We work 12 hour days in the city just to pay the bills here, and spend our weekend catching up on all of the errands and housework we couldn’t do during the week. We try to enjoy life, but the pace of life here is so fast, and the cost of living (even the very basic living we do) is so high, just surviving is hard. He has a job offer where we can live in a small town in the US, buy a small house with a yard that we can garden in, not spend 3 hours a day in traffic, and live on one income when we decide to have children (this would have been impossible in Milan!). We are determined though, to keep all wonderful things that we learned from his Sicilian parents. Less is more, eat fresh, real food, happiness is just the simple moments with your family and friends. I went to a prestigious NYC college, and find that most of my friends are just beginning the “career game,” which I at one point wanted to play. I am amazed at just how much it doesn’t interest my anymore! What I really want is quiet evenings with my husband, good food on the table, watching my kids grow up every day happy and healthy… That’s really all I need :-) Good for you, for finding this kind of peace.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Jen — especially since you’re elsewhere in Italy; it’s important for people to realize that Italy in and itself will not change your life, and depending on the area, you may not be able to change it to your liking either. I’ll be writing more about this, so thank you for the added input :)

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  48. Kristin Gress
    02.23.2011

    Ah, you made me tear up (once again) my friend. And, your readers should know that you would have made a brilliant “big time” lawyer. Love that you made the choice you did. :-)

    Thanks Kris; this means a lot coming from someone else who would’ve done great in BigLaw but chose a different path as well :) xx

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  49. 02.23.2011

    “The only problem was that years before, I had already stopped wanting the so-called American Dream — the bigger house, the bigger car, the bigger and more more more.”

    That’s how I felt when I moved to Chile the first time. I wanted something simpler. I wanted a life where there wasn’t pressure to always be acquiring more and more, bigger and bigger. I’m not saying that the sentiment doesn’t exist here. It does, but the pressure is less so.

    Similar to here, it seems — there are certainly people here who would move to America and live that dream in a heartbeat if they could and can’t understand for the life of them why I’m here…future post probably ;)

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  50. 02.25.2011

    As one person put it – ‘feeling like I can breathe again’. This describes exactly how life at the beach is for me. One deep inhale of the ocean breeze, and I can feel the cares and worries of daily life fall away. Meals are simpler, we talk more and watch TV less, go for walks and bike rides instead of driving everywhere. My husband says if we lived and worked near the ocean, things would be the same as they are here, but I know better. :D

    I think location can make a huge difference in one’s life — not everyone, perhaps, but for me, it absolutely affects my mood.

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  1. [...] I read Michelle Fabio’s words back in February this year, they suddenly clicked. “It really ... ciaoamalfi.com/2011/07/home-amalfi-coast

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