Chat with an Expat: Chantelle Kern of The Italian On Tour
What comes to mind when you think about group tours and travel packages? Crowded buses, an exhausting agenda, and bad food? Or, you may have seen all of Italy’s most popular sights and cities on your own, but are ready to get off the beaten path. Chantelle and Giovanni, owners of The Italian on Tour, moved to Italy from Canada, to follow a dream and share a passion. They wanted to create for food and wine lovers around the world, intimate and curated experiences that spotlight Italy’s hidden regions. And they knew that the only way was to connect their clients with Italians (the insiders) who are living time-honored traditions, day by day.
Hungry to know more? (If you have Celiac Disease, there’s something for you too.) Read an excerpt of our chat and watch the full version on our YouTube channel, Live in Italy Magazine. Andiamo!
Growing Up in the Canadian Outdoors
I am originally from the Sunshine Coast in B.C. from a small town called Powell River. It’s north of Vancouver—you’ve got to take two ferry rides and drive up the peninsula to get there. It’s basically like what you think of as Canadian nature. You have mountains, the lakes, and the ocean. That’s how I grew up: camping and fishing and the Canadian lifestyle like what people say that they want to experience in the Canadian outdoors.
My Dad and Mom still live there and my Dad actually lives in a cabin on the lake. So we are very much the Canadian outdoorsy family!
A Connection to Europe
My grandparents are both Europeans (German and Croatian) and I grew up with their traditions and that really shaped who I am. It also influenced my sense of connection with Europe and Mediterranean lifestyle because Croatians are very similar to Italians when it comes to the family unit and certain cultural aspects.
I think that’s why I never really truly felt at home in Canada and I always knew that I wanted to move to Europe. This is probably why I felt at home in Italy and part of the reason why Giovanni and I decided to finally move.
Giovanni went to boarding school on Long Island. It was very atypical for an Italian family to send their son away from such a young age. We eventually met when were both at the University of Victoria located in Vancouver Island. From there, we both worked. I had a degree in microbiology and chemistry and Giovanni got a job in Italian wine, food and importing.
A Mutual Love of Nature
We spent some time on Vancouver’s North Shore surrounded by mountains and water. The area is very similar to Ascoli Piceno where we live now. Here, we are twenty to thirty minutes away from the Adriatic Sea or fifteen minutes from a national park. We live in a medieval city, but are surrounded by nature.
For both of us growing up surrounded by nature, it was important to live in a place like that so that we can fully enjoy the outdoors with our dogs and where Giovanni could road bike.
When and Where Did You Marry?
We were married in Italy in 2014. It took us awhile to get married. I never really was one of those girls who envisioned the big wedding. However, I ended up having this really big wedding because it was Giovanni’s dream. It was really lovely. We had friends from Canada, England, and the States. It was an amazing experience where we had all these people come together just for the wedding along with Giovanni’s family from Apulia. It was also a mix of people from north, south and central Italy too.
The Idea and Passion That Became A Business
During that time, so many of our friends were like, “how come people don’t know about Ascoli or Le Marche?” So, that was when we realized that we really wanted to share this slice of Italian life with everyone that we could. There are so many people who want to have that experience where you can really immerse yourself in the local culture. Personally, having traveled all over Europe, the experiences that I remembered most is when I could have someone ‘translate’ the local experience.
In essence what Giovanni and I came here to do was to translate the experience for food and wine lovers. Having worked in the food and wine industry for many years, Giovanni was passionate about this area. Food was always a big part of my life too because my grandparents owned a bakery and cafe. We wanted to share with people an authentic food and wine experience that puts quality over quantity.
Summer in Italy
Before we even moved here, we would come to Italy every summer and do a lot of trips like visit wineries, go to Umbria and Abruzzo. That’s what we did, but when you see it through the eyes of other travelers who maybe have only seen Tuscany, they would ask: “how do people not know about this place?” It was something that we were passionate about and wanted to do.
We were not happy living in Vancouver. There seems to be two types of Italians: the ones who love where they live now or the ones who dream to move back, like my husband. I told him, “why don’t we just follow our dreams and go after this?” At first he thought it was crazy, but my grandfather said something that really stuck with me: “Over 60 million people are living and making their lives happen in Italy. You don’t have to wait for retirement to make it happen if that’s what you want.
When did you finally move to Italy?
October 31st, 2015, on Halloween and arrived on November 1st. We have not looked back!
Forming The Italian On Tour
We had always had a lot of people ask us for information, tips, planning. Every summer when we came to Italy, we would always organize stuff for friends. I guess my hidden talent is never eating a bad meal. I always had this knack for finding great places to eat. We’d go out and plan all of these day trips and explore. As much as people think that all of these people live here and know the area, a lot of Italians have a provincial mentality and they don’t really know much outside their own city.
They would explore with us and I’d plan all of these things.
Ascoli doesn’t really have much tourism and I am passionate about experiential travel rather than bed and breakfasts. That was kind of how it started and then we started thinking about names. We eventually came to The Italian on Tour because it’s about how you connect to the local culture. You’re like the Italian and together we’re on tour. We came up with that name and it kind of felt right. That was the January after we got married.
Giovanni talked to his family and everyone was very supportive about us doing this. It was a very difficult time for me because my grandmother was battling Stage 4 breast cancer, but she was very supportive and wanted me to follow my dreams.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to watch the video interview when Chantelle explains the gift of a silver bar that her grandparents gave them for good luck.
Customized; Beat the Crowds; Small Tours
I have to say for any small business, it’s really knowing your messaging and who your ideal client is. That’s really the truth. Because we are very niche, we know who our ideal client is and who we want to work with. So, we do the best with our website wording and the things that we talk about. Our messaging calls out to those people and shows them that we’re for them.
It’s a lifestyle business for us. It’s not about selling it for a lot of money later on. This is about having a certain lifestyle and doing something that we love. We were tired of working for other people’s dreams, so we combined our skills to create The Italian On Tour. We are really about connecting with people. It’s not just about going to see the sights. We are not selling sightseeing tours of the Colosseum, Florence or Pompei. We’re selling you a way to experience Italy like a local and enjoy authentic cuisine, and connect you with locals. That for us is meaningful travel and that’s when you remember something.
Connecting and Supporting Local
Making a connection and people in general are really important to our business. We’re not going out there and saying this is my budget for this meal and this is what I want. We go out and try every single restaurant, winery and experience and then say, “this was so good that we have to go there!”
We are showing our clients the same things that we’d show our own family. It’s a personalized approach and you can’t replicate it when you don’t do it yourself. It’s just us. We host the tours, work with local guides, and even the hotels are locally run. That’s really important to us—to support the local communities wherever we go.
We have had people join us and when they leave are crying tears of joy. And that’s the kind of experience that I want people to leave with.
Travel can be really moving and it doesn’t have to be just about checking off the travel bucket list. It can impact your life and you can impact the local community.
We sell our tours as set dates. You can reach out to us and see if we can arrange private dates, but because it’s only us hosting all the tours you need to book well in advance. We are already getting requests for 2022 and almost full for the Fall.
Creating Gluten Free Tours for Celiacs
I developed Celiac when I went to University and at the time, I didn’t know what it was because no one in my family had it. It took me a while to get it diagnosed. When I first started traveling and I think a lot of Celiacs are the same, you are not comfortable dining out. Traveling is hard. In Italy, Giovanni helped me a lot at first.
There is an app in Italy with a list of Celiac certified restaurants. However, there is a risk of cross contamination and also you are not necessarily going to get the best food. There are a lot of great restaurants that are not certified. I even know of a lady who owns a restaurant and is Celiac, but her restaurant is not certified.
Because I’ve always researched authentic, good, and safe meals we are able to vet them. Whereas, if you’re going out on your own, there will always be a risk.
The reason why we started gluten-free tours is because I had such great success explaining to the restaurant owners my needs and how to prepare the food. People here are very understanding because they know that it’s a disease and not a lifestyle choice.
Unlike North America, people in Italy are rooted in their traditional diets and ones that have kept them healthy for many years. I didn’t feel strange asking people and I always felt pretty safe.
Is it easier now that gluten-free is fashionable?
That’s kind of a yes and a no. Yes, you can go to more restaurants and there will be gluten-free stuff. But, if you’re Celiac, it needs to be prepared so there is no cross-contamination. I offer the tours because you love food and wine, but just happen to be like me.
This was not offered at the start. Our business has always been about authentic food and wine and experiencing the local culture. That is the essence of what we do: a backstage pass to experiencing Italy’s hidden regions like a local.
Just because you’re Celiac doesn’t mean that you don’t love food and wine. There’s actually so much here that is naturally gluten-free.
What is your definition of an expat?
I never really think of myself as an expat. My father-in-law calls me an international citizen. I guess for me that’s kind of like what I feel. I grew up in Canada, but always felt connected to a completely different culture. I’m not Italian, but an EU/German citizen as well as a Canadian. Giovanni is Italian and Canadian. An expat per se means that you are coming from some place and are embracing a new culture. You are someone who is really open to the new culture and different lifestyle.
Get Out of the Bubble and Make Mistakes
You have to be open, non-judgmental and just embrace life. I see expats especially retirees move here and they just stay in their little bubble. I wonder why are you here if you’re not going to experience the local culture? You can’t connect with the locals if you want to speak English to your hairdresser and everyone else, and not want to learn Italian.
My Italian is not perfect, but I think it’s important to go out there and make mistakes. That’s how I started learning. I’ve always been super independent and people were surprised that Giovanni wouldn’t go with me to do things like shopping. I gradually learned all of the names of the vegetables at the market. We got a dog after we moved here. People love dogs so they interacted with me. That really helped me. I wanted to go out there and do my own thing and learn daily life. You’ve got to make mistakes. That’s probably a big hurdle for people.
I’m someone who wants to experience a different culture and I’m lucky to be able to have a dual citizenship so it was easy to emigrate here.
Any plans to become an Italian citizen?
My husband says that I should become Italian so I can vote! Germany only lets you have two passports so I don’t think I’ll be doing that any time soon.
Do you speak German?
No. The only reason I was able to get German citizenship was because my Dad is German. They don’t require you to take a language test. I understand a little because I grew up with my grandmother singing German songs and saying certain phrases.
Where do people who take your tours generally come from?
We get a lot of people from the East Coast of the United States and a lot of people from California; and then Australia and Canada. All of the Canadian clients have been from either Toronto or the Victoria area but, mostly the US. All of them seem to have an Italian connection like their heritage is Italian or a work or other connection to Italy. Foodies are also our clients.
Brains Behind the Instagram Stories
That’s me. I do the photos and everything. Giovanni always says that I’m the brains behind the business. So, I do the Instagram and I built the website. I think when you’re an entrepreneur, you wear many hats.
Instagram for me is enjoyable because it’s creative and I like taking pictures, but I’m not a digital creator per se.
Is there anything that you miss?
In all honesty, what I miss the most is driving. To get a driver’s license you have to start from scratch and haven’t done that. Giovanni did it right away. He had to do it from zero. Having freedom and being able to drive somewhere without needing my husband is what I miss. However, that’s not about Canada per se. And that’s one of the reason why we live in the center because everything is within walking distance. I live 850 m from the Piazza.
I can’t say that there’s anything that I really miss.
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