In Aging Out of Place, we talk to seniors who’ve said no to aging in place and yes to digging up roots and replanting themselves someplace cheaper, warmer or easier. Or all three.
“I hate when people tell me I’m lucky to live in Florence. You create what you want, it doesn’t come and knock on your door. You have to make it happen. After I decided to move to Florence, I promised myself I wouldn’t complain about anything Italian because it was my choice.”
Sally Carrocino certainly made her move to Florence happen. She’d lived her entire life in Los Angeles, working 38 years as a sales rep for luxury goods, but when her second husband, the love of her life John, died two-and-a-half years ago, she knew she wanted to leave both California and her career.
“My passion for the job was gone after John died. We were both reps. I loved it, but knew I needed a change. I have no children or family ties and needed to get out of my comfort zone and have new experiences — I didn’t care if they were good, bad or uncomfortable. I just wanted new challenges and new adventures.”
Carrocino spoke to us by phone from her apartment in Florence, where she lives with the other love of her life, her terrier dog Zoe.
What made you chose Florence as a place to retire?
My husband and I had traveled many times to Italy and fallen in love with it. John loved wine and wineries, and we traveled everywhere. After seeing the big places, we traveled to tiny places. In fact, after living together for 13 years we got married in a little town above Lake Como in a ceremony performed by the mayor. It was like a movie, it was so romantic.
After he died I thought long and hard about where I wanted to live. I considered Charleston, but found it was very expensive. Then it came to me one morning. I realized I didn’t know where in the U.S. I wanted to live but I knew the exact neighborhood in Florence.
I made an initial three-month exploratory trip to Italy with my dog Zoe to make sure. We traveled all over the country by train and bus to some of the places we’d been and some new places.
I’d considered just living in Italy for a few months a year, but during that trip I realized I needed to settle in one place. I didn’t know where at first, but when I got to Florence I knew this was it. Florence is perfect — it’s a big small city. Everything is within two-and-a-half miles. I wanted to be somewhere where I didn’t have to drive but where there was a lot to do.
What finally decided me was that when I got home from that trip, I was lonesome. It just hit me. When I was in Florence I wasn’t lonely.
How did you swing the move financially and logistically?
When I got back from the exploratory trip, things quickly fell into place. I discovered I could sell my house for much more than what I’d expected to get for it because a developer needed it. I also had savings and my husband’s Social Security. Florence is much less expensive than Los Angeles.
I sold or gave away 70 percent of my stuff and just shipped the things I loved. I rented a furnished apartment in Florence, eliminated the accessories there and just kept the sofa, bed, etc. My Florence apartment looks like my house in West Hollywood— it makes me feel comfortable. Liking where you live is so important. I loved my house in LA, which was teeny, only 650 square feet. This place is actually a little bigger. It’s got two bedrooms and two baths. It was refurbished, so everything is new.
You have an Italian name. Do you speak Italian?
Actually I’m Irish, but I was married from age 19 to 25 to a Carrocino and I kept his name. I don’t speak Italian very well. The Italians have spoiled me that way — so many speak English. Plus I have Google translate. You can use it on your phone to scan a menu or sign, and it translates. You never have to worry about what you’re eating or where you’re going.
But I do want to learn. I put it on the back burner for months, but it’s very important, because I live in a non-touristy neighborhood where people don’t speak English and I don’t want to be disrespectful. Starting next week I’m going to buckle down and take lessons and learn.
Did you know anyone in Florence when you moved there?
We had friends in Milan and I have another friend in Florence who’s a travel consultant. But it didn’t matter if I knew anyone, because I knew I’d meet people. I’m a friendly person. When Zoe and I were here for two-and-a-half months we just lived like we weren’t tourists. Having her with me meant everything. When you have a dog, people treat you as if you’re a local. They smile at you and talk, especially if they have a dog, too. She’s my diplomat. She’s very cute.
What’s the best thing about living in Florence?
The food, of course — it’s fabulous. And I like the custom of shopping every day for food, buying everything fresh. I buy only what I can carry because I don’t have a car.
Zoe and I have a routine. We breakfast in and then go out to lunch and most of the time we eat dinner in, because I love to cook. It’s good to make the effort to go out every day.
I also love their way of life, the quality of life. No one’s interested in what you do for a living — people don’t ask you. I love that stores close at 1pm and open at 4pm and in between they have long lunches, they rest, they do their errands. When you’re a tourist it’s a nuisance, but I love it as a local.
I love that Florence is so dog friendly — I can take Zoe everywhere but museums. She sits on the seat next to me at restaurants. I love that every time you take a walk you see something different. Not everyone is open at the same time. There’s so much to do; gardens, museums, artisans.
What’s the worst?
The mail from Italy to the U.S. can take forever. When I got here I wrote out cards thanking my customers. They took 30 to 60 days to arrive. Shipping costs are outrageous.
Also, Italy is very bureaucratic. Everything takes tons of paperwork to accomplish.
Is it expensive to live in Florence? Europe has a reputation for having a high cost of living.
It’s the opposite. It’s very inexpensive — certainly in comparison to Los Angeles. One Euro is $1.05. It costs €1.20 for coffee. I can have a nice lunch for €6 to €10. I get pasta pomodoro and carafe of white wine and a carafe of acqua frizzante for €6. Every time they tell me how much something is, it’s shocking. Food and wine is so inexpensive. I pay my cleaning lady €20 every two weeks. One of my concerns was finding a good vet. I found a good one nearby, took Zoe in for an exam, X-ray and meds, and it cost €60. In LA it would have been more than twice that.
I buy a bus pass for $35 a month and have unlimited travel. We hop on a bus not knowing where we’re going to get off. It’s a great way to get to know the city. I like relying on busses. When I was in the States I never took a bus, but here I’ve embraced it.
Moving somewhere new by yourself can be intimidating. Have you managed to build a social life?
My social life is better here than in LA. People in LA are so busy and they always say we’ll get together, but then they don’t follow up. I was always the pursuer. Coming here I had a clean slate. I was leaving nothing behind — I had no children. People can come visit me from the States. I made sure I had 2 bedrooms and 2 baths so I can have guests.
I’ve joined several Facebook pages to find friends, and I’ve been assertive in seeking out those people and meeting them. They’ve all been interesting. Eighty percent are expats. I like to frequent the same places for lunch so that people get to know me. I go to a neighborhood place for prosecco, and I’ve made really nice friends who text me to have lunch with them. I’m very active. There’s a fabulous movie theater that shows movies in the original language, including lots of American movies. I go there no matter what the movie. I went to Milan with Zoe to see friends. I even went to Verona to see an Italian rock star. Florence is in the center of Italy so everything is accessible.
As for romance, there are single men here but I haven’t pursued that. I might at some point. I’d like to flirt again.
Are you still working?
I rep home décor — vintage, shabby chic, artistic design. I still have great relationships with my former customers and they’re always asking me for something different and special, so I found stuff, sent pictures and did some business with art and fabrics. I don’t do it for the money, but to have the experience and give business to the Italians. I’ve made friends that way with Italian artisans.
I keep busy reading. I’ve become a ravenous reader. I haven’t turned on my TV since I’ve been here. I read, read, read. If I like the book I contact the author.
What do you do about healthcare, and what will you do if something serious happens?
I have Medicare in the States but I can’t use that here. In order to get a one-year visa, when I came here I bought a year’s healthcare plan through AAA. I can renew my visa twice and then apply for residency and I’ll be eligible for their national health, so after this year I’m going to check out the Italian healthcare system, which is very good, or go to a private insurance company. It’s $1,000 to $2,000 a year for health insurance, but it’s not a problem to pay out of pocket. A doctor visit is $25.
Do you imagine living the rest of your life in Florence?
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
My attitude is just do it, and if it doesn’t work out, you can undo it. I don’t want ever to feel I should have done something. There’s so much out there to experience — go for it. Don’t be boring.
The Bottom Line
Cost of living: Moderate-to-high. For $1,500, you can rent a small 2 bed-2 bath apartment including utilities and internet in a nice residential neighborhood. Having a car skews it higher, but a car is unnecessary and an unlimited bus pass is $35 a month. Groceries and eating out are inexpensive.
Climate: Mediterranean. Summers average 77° Fahrenheit and are sunny, while the winters rarely dip below the 40s, though the late fall can be wet.
Expat community: Sizeable and welcoming. There’s a big expat community that meets through Facebook groups and mutual introductions. An English-speaking newspaper, The Florentine, provides a wealth of information, including goings-on in town, classifieds, interviews. The Facebook page Girl in Florence tells you where to get your hair cut, where to go with your dog, the best places for lunch, side trips and more.
Crime rate: No worries. As in any city, you shouldn’t carry your entire savings in cash or leave your purse on a chair in an outdoor café while you go to the ladies room, but Florence is generally much safer than LA or New York. Of course, having a dog helps. Violent crime is not an issue.
Human rights/civil rights: Better than in the U.S. Gay marriage just passed. Medical marijuana is legal, if harder to find than in some U.S. states. Women work in all fields. However, with an increase in immigration, racial tensions have escalated.
Global Age-Watch Ranking: 37. Life expectancy at 60 and healthy life expectancy (how many healthy years can you expect to have post-60) are higher than in the U.S., and the old-age poverty rate is low, but employment opportunities are hard to come by.
Visa situation: Restricted If you’re here for longer than three months, you have to get a one-time visa. For a retirement visa, you must show that you have health insurance and an income of at least $3500 a month. Apply for the retirement visa before you come at an Italian embassy in the U.S. Be prepared for extensive paperwork. Italy is very bureaucratic.
Best places to stay: Anywhere in town. Caroccino recommends B&B Hotels. The company has hotels all over Italy and three in Florence. They are clean, nice and inexpensive (our search for a few days in March showed rates around €40 a night). For an extra €5 you can bring your dog.
Check out Caroccino’s blog at EspressotoProsecco.com