For George and Linda Meyers, it happened slowly, then fast.
For years the pair travelled throughout Italy on holiday exploring small towns and villages. George, a retired American air force pilot, flew all over Tuscany in the 80s and 90s in light aircraft. They’d walk the cobbled streets and talk of moving there and starting their own cooking school.
But life was hectic.
“I was working 20 hours a day seven days a week and Linda was doing the same as a schoolteacher for 26 years,” says George.
“We were like man, there’s got to be something more than just working like this.”
Then on one trip, they found a village they really liked – perhaps enough to live there. They mulled over the possibility for a few days before finally arguing themselves into it.
“I said Linda, what’s the worst that can happen?” says George. “You live in Italy for a year!”
Within two weeks, Linda had quit her job and moved to the town of Montefollonico in Tuscany. Not long after, Cook in Tuscany was born, and in 2018, the couple took over management of Relais La Chiusa, a boutique hotel and restaurant.
“We are life changers, really,” says Linda. “We changed our lives!”
Sandy and Phil Ferretti, who run Relais Ortaglia in Tuscany, have a similar story. They first came to Italy on their honeymoon, and kept returning on holiday every summer after that.
“Every time we got on that Alitalia plane to go home, we felt like we left a piece of our hearts in Italy, says Sandy. “And you just tried to figure out the rest of the year how not to feel that way.”
“And we decided to do it and we just did”.
There are approximately 36,000 bed and breakfasts in Italy, according to the German market research company Statista – a number which has gone steadily up in the past decade, bar a slight dip in 2020.
With its endlessly beautiful landscapes, farm-fresh food, and vast and varied history and culture, it’s not surprising that more than a few foreigners who visit Italy as tourists turn their minds to owning one of them.
But the life isn’t all prosecco and sunsets. Moving countries and setting up your own business from scratch requires time and preparation.
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- The five most essential pieces of paperwork you’ll need when moving to Italy
To start with, you need the right to live and work in Italy, which for anyone from outside the EU means submitting to a rigorous visa application process.
A lot of people think they can come on an elective residency visa, says Sandy, but for that you need significant financial assets and a self-sustaining income – and once you arrive, you don’t have the right to work.
Sandy and Phil first applied for a green technology visa that the government was offering at the time, having found a property entirely off the grid that would run on its own solar power. But when that purchase fell through, so did the visa.
They ended up coming over on a self-employment visa, which might be the best option for those looking to start a business.
But it has its own drawbacks. A fixed number are issued each year, usually in early January – which means that if you find a place later in the year, the visa might not be available by the time you’re ready to move.
“It’s a difficult process and you have to have an amazing attorney lead you through what’s best for your situation,” says Sandy.
Running alongside the challenge of obtaining a visa is the need to find the right property. Not just one you like personally, but one that also makes sense from a business perspective, which often requires careful research.
Ashley and Jason Bartner of the agriturismo La Tavola Marche were in their mid-twenties and on their honeymoon when they first visited Italy and decided they wanted to start a B&B.
“We were living in New York and wanted to do something different,” says Ashley. “And we decided why not Italy? We don’t have kids, we don’t have a home. If we’re going to do something crazy, we were 25, 26 – let’s do it.”
They returned three or four times in the following 18 months to look for places and research the area before finally stumbling on and buying the property that became La Tavola – but not before putting in a year and a half of intensive work.
“You need to do research, learn the language, write a business plan,” says Ashley.
“A lot of people think they’re going to come out here and just do it. But there’s still a lot of mental organisation and preparing yourself properly.”
Sandy says she once advised a couple who had found a property they loved and wanted to run as a B&B in Tuscany. But it only had two guest bedrooms, and was in a remote area.
She sat them down and took them through the numbers: what did the property cost, and how much could they realistically charge per night given the location?
“I’m like, Montepulciano’s great, Chianti’s great, Montalcino’s great, but, you know, if you’re in the middle of nowhere because it’s a house that you can afford, you can’t charge what I can charge here.”
“So now you’re getting up and cooking breakfast for two rooms? Are you going to make enough money for your mortgage payment or to run your business?”
Ultimately the couple decided to hold off on buying somewhere until they’d done more research.
“There’s a whole thought process that unless you’ve experienced it, it’s very helpful to talk to somebody who has experienced it to think the whole situation through,” Sandy says.
If you persevere for long enough, the consensus is, you’ll eventually get both your visa and your property. That’s when the real work of running the B&B itself begins.
Sandy was surprised by how long the working day is: 17 hours, she estimates on average, getting up at 5am to prepare breakfast and sometimes not getting into bed till after midnight.
She and Phil launched Relais Ortaglia once their children were in college, and she says it’s not something it would have been possible for them to do while raising a family. While they do know another B&B-manager couple that have recently had a baby, she points out that they are supported by a staff of almost 20.
“It’s funny because we have a lot of people come to visit us thinking they can pick our brain and learn,” Sandy says. “And as they’re checking out, they’re like, we didn’t realise what your day looks like! And we don’t think we can do it.”
“Or we have the opposite: people who check in and they’re like yes, as soon as we retire, this is what we’re going to do. And I’m like, I’m 50. And I’m working a 17 hour workday. I can’t imagine starting this at 72!”
In opening La Tavola Marche, Ashley and Jason had a head start as they each had a background in hospitality – Ashley in helping to run private dining and sports clubs, and Jason as a chef. But it’s not necessarily a prerequisite for running your own place.
“We really kind of learned on the job,” says Linda. “I was a teacher, George was a pilot. We certainly didn’t know anything about running a cooking school.” (“I have a lot of training in eating!” pipes up George).
Sandy’s background is as a paralegal and Phil is a professor of animation, so they also picked up key skills on the job, learning things like how to clip a chicken’s wings to stop them straying into the vineyard from online videos (“Thank goodness for Youtube,” says Sandy).
If you’re starting without much experience, though, it’s important to bring in people who do know what they’re doing, says Linda.
“I’m not an expert cook, so I brought in nonnas from the village to teach the class, and they’re the star of the kitchen,” she highlights.
“It is literally impossible for us to run this place by ourselves; you have to be willing to share this passion and bring people into it.”
Moving to a new country has inevitably involved lifestyle adjustments, many of which have been positive.
Ashley says she was struck by how quickly she and Jason were accepted into their community.
“We were just taken in under the wings of our little neighbourhood and neighbours in our small town so quickly,” she says.
“We lived in New York for eight years and didn’t know our neighbours. We lived here for basically under eight weeks and it seemed like everyone knew who we were, like there had been a town meeting or something.”
Sandy enjoys feeling more connected to the land, growing her own fruit and vegetables and shopping at the market only for what’s seasonally available.
She recalls flummoxing her sister by telling her they couldn’t buy a certain vegetable from the market because it was out of season.
“I’m like, it’s not America! You can’t get a kiwi 24/7. Now I can be standing in the market and I’ll tell you what month it is by what vegetables are there. It’s a whole new way of life.”
But living in a new country brings challenges too.
There’s the difficulty of being away from extended family.
Linda and Sandy say they’re pleasantly surprised by how much they see of family, both on daily Zoom calls and in person when hosting them on their visits to Italy. But Ashley says it’s been hard to miss the birth of her nephew, as well as things like funerals and weddings among extended family in the States.
Then there’s Italy’s infamous bureaucracy, which keeps business owners (and foreign residents generally) on their toes.
“Every couple years there’s there is some sort of curveball surprise,” says Ashley.
“That’s part of Italy, learning to problem solve, deal with it – you’re not going to change it. You’ve got to learn how to live with it and roll with the punches.”
Overall, though, it’s hard to get anyone to admit to anything they don’t like about their jobs, even the long hours.
For George and Linda, the best part of the job is meeting guests from around the world.
“It just opens your eyes up to this whole world out there, and yes people get a lot out of it but we get so much more out of it to be around these people, because it just gives us more energy,” says George.
“We just love meeting people and sharing our lives and our love for Italy,” she says.
“That’s a), and b) is what it does for my children. My parents always taught me that the most important education was travel, and so every time they get on a plane and visit it’s a wonderful feeling to give them the magic of travel, and at a slower pace.”
For Ashley, it’s waking up in her own B&B in Italy every day.
“There’s a sense of pride in having an idea and creating it, and seeing it to fruition, and working hard throughout these years to make it what we wanted it to be,” she says.
“That idea that if you build it, they will come – and that they did.”
For those who might want to follow in their footsteps, all three couples have the same message: go for it – but put some time and work in first.
“My first advice would be come here, stay here first, and then make the big decision to jump,” says Linda.
“I’m the first one to say go, come on! Let’s figure it out, but let’s do it at a pace that you and your family can handle.”
“A hobby is different from a passion,” says George. “So if you like cooking that doesn’t mean you should own a restaurant.”
“I always say, do you want to make pizzas or do you want to own a pizza business? They’re not the same. So you need to identify that first.”
“Never give up,” is Sandy’s advice.
“Even when people say it can’t be done, or it’s crazy, just keep shooting for the stars”.
“Somebody said to me, oh, but you’re leaving your kids in America, how can you do that? And I said, no, I’m teaching them to go for their dreams.”
“You find a dream, you find a goal and you go make it happen, and then you bring everybody else along for the ride.”
“Do it!” says Ashley. “Learn the language, write a business plan, and do it.”