Life lessons and slow travel with Two Creative Travelers
Debbie and Stijn moved to Italy during the COVID lockdown in Europe. For most of us, this would have been the worst time to travel, never mind sell everything; reduce our belongings to only six suitcases; and buy a one-way ticket. However, for this adventurous couple, the pandemic was the push they needed. Although Stijn rather stick to a strict travel itinerary, Debbie has learned how to, “go with the flow.” And it’s her joie de vivre that has created both life and travel balance. Together, they’ve learned to embrace the unexpected.
Debbie and Stijn set out for a slow travel experience through Europe and had no plans to buy a property in Italy. However, Umbria must have been written in the stars because everything so far has lined up quite perfectly! Hope you enjoy this month’s “Chat With An Expat”!
Where are you from?
Stijn: I am originally from Belgium and am a European citizen. In 2011, I moved to the United States until the moment that we decided to move back to Europe.
Debbie: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. When I was 14 years old, my mom moved us six kids to Nevada. That’s where I ended up making my family and retired there. I’ve lived in there until last year, 2020.
How did you manage to move in 2020 during the pandemic?
Stijn: Moving to Europe and traveling together was something that we had talked about for a while. I had been preparing financially, trying to get “all of our ducks in a row”. In 2020 it was more important — ‘now or never’. We didn’t know how travel would be impacted. So we accelerated the plan that we had all along to leave the U.S. We wanted life on the road, so to speak. And, it turned out that the push that we needed was the pandemic. It ultimately made it difficult, but a wonderful decision.
Debbie: And actually everything went faster than according to plan when we decided that September, 2020 was when we were going regardless of everything that might get thrown our way. So, with the real estate market kind of ‘iffy’, we decided to put the house up for sale in June. We thought it would take a couple of months. However, it sold to the first person who walked in the door!
Everything we own in 6 suitcases!
We loaded the last bits of our belongings, packed into six suitcases, and headed to Vegas for the next couple of months because obviously we were two months away from September. Then, we bought a one-way ticket and headed to Europe starting with Belgium (where Stijn’s family is) and started planning our life of travel.
What were the challenges at the time to travel to Europe?
Stijn: At the time, me being a European citizen, I was still able to travel to Europe and Debbie was able to accompany me as a spouse. Now, she would not be able to stay indefinitely without a visa process. However, as we did our research, I found what is called a ‘family reunification visa’ and we were allowed to apply for that in Los Angeles. This process took (don’t be shocked) nine days to receive visa approval. It was ridiculously quick and then we made the move pretty quickly after that. Even before receiving the visa, we booked the tickets and then on September 16th we left.
Debbie: You mentioned COVID testing. We did not have to have tests before we left, but did get tested when we landed in Belgium.
Did you have to quarantine?
What other countries were you in before arriving in Italy?
Debbie: Belgium of course. We had originally planned to start our travels in Portugal in January of 2021. Then, in November of 2020, things got more aggressive as far as lockdowns in Belgium. So, Stijn found a cheap airplane ticket to Portugal and we thought that we’d head there for a couple of months.
We went down to the Algarve where we have friends who we’ve known since 2009. I used to do home exchanges and I met them through it, They’re a couple who live in a cute little town in the Algarve. We became instant friends, so through the years, we’ve always gone to see them and they’ve come to see us. They manage a resort in Ferragudo and we rented one of their apartments. About December, there was a window where you could get into another country, so we got tested and road tripped through Portugal, got back to Belgium, and bought a car.
We loaded up the car after only four days in Belgium and went back down to the Algarve. Our plan was that in February, we’d go to Cascais outside of Lisbon, but they locked down really hard. You couldn’t even go to the beach, so we just stayed in the Algarve until April. We were there basically from November 2020 to April 2021. During that time we were making our plans to see what country we would visit next. Originally it was going to be Norway and then I came up with this thought to go next to Italy. Not only had I been, but I have a family history there too.
Then, May and June (2020) we were in the U.S. for some family events and then went back to Belgium. From there, we loaded up the car and started our seven month journey exploring Italy that began in Piemonte region and would end in Sicily where my great grandmother was from.
Why did you start in Piemonte?
Stijn: We definitely wanted to check out the Dolomites and northern Italy more towards the summer. The weather will be better and we figured that it would be less crowded. When were in Portugal, we had gone to this Italian restaurant a few times before the end of our stay. A waitress whose father owned the restaurant told us about a home that he rents in Piemonte. We made arrangements and then stayed at their home in Ferragudo.
Seeing the Dolomites
My very first trip to Europe was in 1998. My sister was living in Germany and we did eight countries in 10 days. We were in Austria looking at a map and seeing that we were so close to Italy, decided to drive over the border and put our feet there. It would make our Italian grandmother so happy.
When Stijn and I went, I was blown away. I didn’t know that he was filming me and I was bawling like a baby.
Stijn, do you do a lot of the planning?
Yes, that’s the piece I’ve taken a hold of and I really enjoy looking for places to stay. I’ve found places through Facebook groups like ‘Places to Stay in Italy’ and then of course, the standard staples like Booking(dot)com and those kinds of websites. Generally, I try to find things that are less global scale and we’re going to try to avoid the big chains because it’s such a more authentic experience. The Dolomites place was such a good example of that.
We definitely like to think outside of the box. We used to do AirBnb a lot, but not so much anymore because we found more culturally genuine and enriching experience by finding places through other avenues.
Were you wine lovers before going to Italy, like for example, Asti?
Debbie: For me, it wasn’t new. I started experiencing wine in 1998 and then finally came into what I like and paired with what. I love both white and red. During my travels in Italy, I have learned that the wine is simply amazing!
Stijn: I’m usually a beer drinker, but when in Italy you have to experience what is so core to the culture here. We’ve particularly enjoyed learning more about Barolo and Barbaresco and then, there’s Brunello. It was great to taste the differences and learn about the grape varieties and how the terroir makes a big difference, plus the flavors and notes that you can pick up. It’s interesting to see how each region has developed its own unique take on not just food, but wine etc. It’s great to experience these things and not just go with what you know and that’s available everywhere.
Why did you start the Two Creative Travelers YouTube channel?
I have five grandsons and would like our experiences to be handed down and always be there. I also want to share it with those people who are contemplating the slow travel idea.
We were also looking at other YouTube travelers when coming up with this idea of traveling full time and realized that we could do it too. But, not at the level of some of these bigger YouTubers. Stijn is the numbers guy and anything that he is going to do will be full board. I film and edit.
Stijn: I optimize and do some of the planning. On the YouTube side, I want to make sure that whatever time we dedicate to film, edit and think about the videos, we get the most response and “bang for the buck.”
Debbie: We set goals.
What are your goals for the channel?
Debbie: I would like to hit a thousand subscribers.
Stijn: What’s most important to us is that we are able to live our life and YouTube helps demonstrate what we do. We don’t want YouTube to drive what we do, where we go, or experience something.
Debbie: I want to emphasize that it’s easy to travel even during a pandemic. It’s real life and we’re real people.
Is there a connection between the title Two Creative Travelers and ‘Slow Travel’?
Stijn: Yes. We’ve always traveled in different ways, as mentioned earlier. We gave up the American Dream.
Debbie: We want to explore areas from about nine days to a month. (In Portugal, it was five months).
Debbie: I’ve been retired for 18 years, but Stijn doesn’t call it that.
I say that I am on an open-ended sabbatical. I don’t know when the end is.Stijn
Are there any obstacles?
Debbie: Getting into each other’s minds and know what each other wants for the YouTube. I know that I want and Stijn has a different perspective. There’s some videos that we haven’t made because we couldn’t agree.
Stijn: From a travel perspective, you have to be flexible and have Plans C, D, and E too. If Plan A doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that you are settling for Plan B. Don’t focus so much on what you cannot do.
One thing that I’d like to add is that I’m newer out of the workforce, so I feel that every day I need to do something tangible. I struggle with that mentally at times. Often I ask Debbie, “what should we do today” and she’d say, “whatever you feel like.” I like to be able to think that at the end of each day, I’ve done this, this and this.
When did you decide to buy a home in Italy?
That was totally not planned at all. We were new into our slow traveling and anyone who has been to Italy, knows that it gets into your heart and soul. We’ve loved every piece of Italy that we’ve seen so far. We had a month long plan to stay in Umbria and arrived here on August 16th or 17th.
I said to Stijn, “I belong here. This is beautiful.” In the past, I often would say to him, “this is so beautiful, I could live here” and he’d look up home prices on his phone and says, “it’s too expensive here. We can’t live here.” And I’d tell him that I didn’t mean it literally…
Stijn: This happened again and one thing I’d like to add is that our host in Umbria was chaperoning us everywhere. She took us to local events and showed us everything the place had to offer. So, when I found Idealista (the Italian Zillow) I found a home and showed Debbie. It was just reduced in price and was listed with the agent who our host knew well. There was all of these things that were too much of a coincidence. We decided to put in an offer and after a couple of back and forths, we ended up in contract and now we’re here.
Debbie: We got in here on October 11th.
What is the name of the town?
Stijn: We’re in a town called Piegaro which is about 40 minutes west of the city of Perugia. We’re about twenty minutes south of Lake Trasimeno which is one of the largest lakes in Italy. To the west of us, is Citta della Pieve which the current Prime Minister (Mario Draghi) is from.
Debbie: This central location is also two hours south of Florence, two hours north of Rome and two hours to either coast.
How are you adjusting to small town life in Italy?
Stijn: We have been very fortunate that some of the connections that we’ve made here like the realtor and our host have generously acted as interpreters when needed. I am able to get by, for example, with the couple of contractors who we had over today. One big advantage is that I speak French.
I am taking Italian lessons with two students and a teacher. I’m trying to get the most intense program to expedite learning and soon Debbie will follow.
Debbie: I started learning a bit of Italian while in Portugal. I use Duolingo and I pick up on things.
Stijn: I would say that at most restaurants, groceries stores or DIY shops, they generally have at least one person who speaks English.
How did you find the home buying process?
Debbie: It was a great experience.
Stijn: Some things are different. For example, a realtor here represents both sides. The homeowner who wants to sell finds one or more realtors who list the property. The buyer must then go through the seller’s realtor.
We were really fortunate because we had a good reference for this realtor. She helped us with translation and was very responsive. The negotiating process was a little less formal than it would be in the U.S. where we could make a verbal offer. That verbal offer would be passed on to the seller, but in the U.S. it’s usually just a contractual offer.
Only at the end did we put it into writing.
Owned a home in Italy in just 6 weeks.
Another thing that is different is that here, the down payment does not go into escrow. The amount was paid directly to the seller. If between that moment and the sale date we backed out, we would lose the deposit. If the seller cancelled, they would owe us twice the amount of the deposit.
Ultimately, we found everything to be very smooth. Because we were in the lower price range we did not need a mortgage, so that really expedited the process. From the moment the offer was accepted to the move-in date was about six weeks.
Moving In and Renovating
Debbie: We signed our papers on October 11th and we slept there that night. We requested our mattresses to be delivered that day and they were.
Stijn: I would say that the biggest advantage that we have is that we are here. We hear horror stories from others when they are trying to do a home renovation from afar. So, if someone says that they will be here by 10 am, but haven’t arrived until 10:30 or 11:00, we can be available.
In the grand scheme of things, all things [related to renovations] are reasonably priced.
Stijn: Yes. There are incentives. There’s kitchen one that we could have applied for. Most of them are offered as tax deductions. You can take a deduction over the next ten years provided that you are an employed individual here. So, if you’re not employed a lot of the incentives don’t provide the benefit that is offered. I believe that we would benefit from the energy one. There are certainly lots of incentives to remodel or buy energy efficient appliances etc.
Will this be your primary home?
Stijn: Yes. We do plan to still travel, but this is our primary home.
Debbie is a descendant of an Italian great grandmother.
My great grandparents came from Sicily in the early 1900’s and my grandmother was born in the U.S. I was very close to her. Although I probably have more Dutch in me than Italian, I identify with Italian more because of my grandmother.
Definition of an Expat
Debbie: I didn’t even know that word until I met Stijn. What I gather is that it’s people who come from another country. There’s a lot of English people here and they have their little expat groups and hangout together. To me, it’s almost like a little club of sorts. But, that’s not what I’m after. We’ve made great friends in the expat community, but we’ve also made friends with the local people and that’s our goal.
Stijn: I agree with Debbie. I feel that often the expat isn’t as committed to the long-term. The expat is somebody who seeks to live in a community that is still very much like their home country, just perhaps with better weather, cheaper prices, and whatever might draw them to this area. I feel like both of us seek to be much more in tune with and a part of the community.
When I first moved from Belgium to the United States, I tried to do the same thing and find commonality. People are people, so you’re always going to find ones with similar interests etc.
The biggest hurdle.
I think the biggest hurdle that I’ve seen people struggle with is the language. If you master the language, that is the best way to connect with anybody. All of the people here are very happy to know that you are taking an interest in their country and culture. Plus, making a massive effort to learn the language. Although it’s difficult, everybody should make that a priority when they go live somewhere else. You might be able to get by in the grocery store and think that knowing the words for blueberries or beef are good enough, but your life will be so much richer and you’ll be more part of the community when you can communicate.
Besides friends and family, what do you miss?
Stijn: Well, there are a few things! I would say first the bar culture and hanging out with friends. Of course, that was a different part of my life, so maybe I’m just reminiscing. Second, I miss the fry shop and just running there sometimes. Again, it’s the social interaction that was involved.
Debbie: My family, grandkids and friends some whom I’ve known since high school. I miss taking a little trip with them. Culturally, I don’t miss anything. I got bit by the travel bug in 1998 and since then, been ready to go. What we are doing now is the best of both worlds.
What are you goals in the next year?
Debbie: That’s a tough one. I always look to the future, but, when it’s asked point blank like that, I just live day by day. I have goals for the house: plans and ideas to make it really ours. We have no plans of leaving. More traveling, taking it slow and enjoying life. I am a cancer survivor so I learned a long time ago (since 2010) just how to live.
Stijn: We haven’t explicitly talked about this, but I think it would be really cool that by the end of 2022, we have visited each region in Italy. We are now residents and now I want to see the whole country: Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany for more time, etc. And then maybe one international trip as well.
Debbie is a great decorator. I know she will want to make this house a home as soon as possible. So I’m excited to take on that challenge.