'The benefits of Italian life can't be matched'

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Greg and Jen Culver are enjoying the Italian way of life in Lake Como.
16:55 CET+01:00
American Greg Culver moved to Lake Como with his wife and baby daughter, putting their careers on hold to soak up the Italian culture and learn the language. He tells The Local how they fell in love with the food and scenery of northern Italy, and why the wine might persuade them to stay longer than planned.

How easy was it to plan the move?

My wife and daughter are both Italian citizens, which made most of the planning process fairly simple. And by simple, I mean that it still took over a dozen trips to the Italian Embassy in Washington DC (fortunately, we were living fairly close at the time!)

One day, the representative at the Embassy was so inundated with new visa applications that he told me, “your wife is Italian, si? Your baby is Italian, si? OK - you go to Italy and you do not need a Visa. They will probably let you stay.” I asked what would happen if they didn’t let me stay. He said “Well, then you have to leave”. I decided it was best to come back again when he wasn’t so busy and try again.

What do you like best about living in Como?

I have quickly developed a deep love for northern Italy, from the rolling hills of Piemonte to the breathtaking Dolomite mountain range. But Lake Como somehow stands out, even against this beautiful backdrop .

Whether you choose to come in the spring, when the geraniums are draping from the windows and the flowers are blooming around the lake, or plan your trip in the winter, when the markets are out and Christmas lights are shining - you will see and feel a different Como each time you visit.

I would suggest that anyone visiting the lake allow plenty of time to experience all the different towns along its shores. From Como to Lecco and then Bellagio to Menaggio - you’re guaranteed to experience something new each and every time.

How easy has it been to assimilate into the local community?

We have lots of family in the area, which made it easier. Their network of friends have become our friends, and we learned early on to avoid simple faux-pas like cheese on a seafood pasta or cappuccino after breakfast.

We feel as though we have been fully accepted in the community and we’re even fairly well known as the “americani” at the local shops.

How are you doing with learning the language?

When we first moved here, we spent roughly two hours every day studying, and felt confident that our linguistic skills were improving quickly, but we both feel we hit a wall several months ago. Having English-speaking guests coming to stay, along with our own travel around Europe, prevented us from continuing our studies. This is a sensitive subject since one major goal in moving here was to become fluent.

On the other hand, our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Julia, is becoming perfectly bilingual - her uncle and aunt only speak to her in Italian. One day, my wife and I were trying to remember the word for rain. My wife thought it was 'piange', and then we heard a tiny little voice in the background say “mamma, no! Not 'piange' - 'piove'!”

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How else do you think Julia is benefiting from living in a foreign country?

Apart from learning the language, she has become quite the food expert and truly eats like an Italian. We have completely removed fast food from our diets - she has never seen the inside of a McDonalds or Burger King. Olive oil has replaced butter and fruit has replaced dessert. The Mediterranean diet is something we hope sticks with her forever.

What has been the most 'Italian' experience you've had so far?

We live in a condominium with five other families in the same building. I am a big fan of grilling and suggested to my uncle that the building install a BBQ for the community to use.
When we had our inaugural feast, we quickly realized the picnic table (for eight people) we had bought wasn't going to hold everyone and set up makeshift tables that spanned across the entire front yard for the 22 people that were here for the feast.

I was pushed aside from grilling duties - which was all the better, as the food filled our plates endlessly. We ate beef ribs, pork ribs, pancetta, salamelle, sausage, lamb and more.
Delicious vegetables, aged cheeses from Naples and eventually homemade grappa from Veneto magically appeared, and the conversations lasted deep into the night. We tried our best to speak only in Italian and I found myself sitting back in my chair and thinking to myself, “this is exactly why we’re here”.

Have you had much chance to see the rest of Italy?

Seeing as much of Italy as possible was as important to us as learning the language. We have made it our goal to travel like locals whenever possible. Staying in agriturismo’s throughout the country has become our favourite way to travel.

We have noticed differences from changes in dialect, to the time to start lunch to the type of wines served with the meals. We also love discovering the local specialities – pizzoccheri in Valtellina or arancini in Sicilia. Even though we have spent so much time on the road, we still only feel like we’ve experienced five per cent of what this magical country can offer.

So do you think you will stay in Italy long-term?

Both my wife and I have grown fond of the lifestyle and our family life here in Italy. Sometimes the differences between our native America and Italy can be frustrating (lack of conveniences, for example), but the benefits of living in Italy cannot be matched anywhere in the world.

We are learning more about food, wine and history than five lifetimes of books could offer in our native country. We have bonded with Jen’s extended family and our daughter is growing into a beautiful little girl with skills that will last her a lifetime.

We would love to see her enrolled in school so that the language becomes as deeply embedded in her as the memories of this trip have been for us. Of course, we intently miss our friends and family; but if the right opportunity presented itself to keep us here - I think it would certainly merit a serious discussion. And of course, we’ll be sure to open a good Brunello di Montalcino for the discussion; which, in itself, may sway our opinion. 

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