American Expat Living in Italy - Interview with Scott

Published: 15 Apr at 9 AM
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Filed: Interviews,Italy
Scott Bergstein and Jessica Coup walked away from their lives in corporate America to grow olives in Puglia, the "heel of the boot" that is the Italian peninsula, and to radically change their lifestyle. Their journey has been much more than a simple relocation or change of venue. It has, in fact, been transformative for the couple. Humor, tenderness, joy and tears are woven into the stories about how Jessica and Scott try to become part of the fabric of Italian life rather than a stain on it. Scott's expat blog is called The Soul of the Heel (see listing here)

Jessica & Scott enjoying
Jessica & Scott enjoying "pranzo al mare," lunch at the sea

Here's the interview with Scott...

Where are you originally from?
We moved to Italy after living for many years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

In which country and city are you living now?
We are now living in the village of Marinelli of the town of Cisternino in the province of Brindisi, region of Puglia in Italy.

How long have you lived in Italy and how long are you planning to stay?
We have lived in Cisternino for about a year and plan to stay indefinitely.

Scott Bergstein, a
Scott Bergstein, a "soul of the heel"
Why did you move to Italy and what do you do?
After several trips to Italy, we discovered a love for its people, its food and wine, and the culture and history. Our choice of Puglia was based on the mild winters, wonderful cuisine and a low cost of living, all important criteria as we looked for a place to retire. Although neither Jessica nor I have a "job," we grow olives and make our own olive oil. We also bought and restored a property in the countryside which we rent to people doing holidays in this area.

Did you bring family with you?
It's just Jessica and I, and our cat, Shakespeare.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
Having bought our home here two years before we made the move, the transition was a smooth one. We already had a group of local friends and an enthusiastic support system. We knew our way around, for the most part--where to shop for what item and how to get there--so that part of the transition was easy. The difficult parts of the transition--the language and the challenges of the Italian bureaucracy--continue to make feeling completely at ease with our new home elusive.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
We have many Pugliese friends and tend to spend time with them rather than with other expats. When we decided to take the step to move to Italy, it was also a decision to become a part of our community and to not cloister ourselves in an English-speaking, expat enclave. Moving to Italy was, in the first instance, an adventure for us and a big part of that adventure was the opportunity to immerse ourselves into a new culture. Surrounding ourselves with other expats seems anathema to that.

Entrance to Villa Tutto, our home in Puglia
Entrance to Villa Tutto, our home in Puglia
What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
From our home to the beautiful beaches of the Adriatic Sea is a twenty-minute drive so going to the sea, whether for lunch or a swim, is a routine activity for us. We also take advantage of our location relative to the many medieval, hilltop towns in our area and explore them, taking in their distinct characteristics and personalities. Towns such as Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Ceglie Messapica, Ostuni, Lecce and Alberbello have yielded up a few of their secrets to us, though we know they have hidden many more from our sight. Our favorite activity, though, is getting lost. We walk or drive around the area and take country roads, city streets and back alleys that we have never been on and have no idea to where they lead. The rewards have been some of the most memorable sights in our repertoire.

What do you enjoy most about living in Italy?
Southern Italy is as much a lifestyle as it is a place. Life moves slowly here in keeping with the agricultural heritage of its people. The shops in the towns of Puglia close each afternoon after 1:00 and re-open at around 5, a vestige of the days when the heat of the day sent the farmers out of the fields and into shelter. Another aspect of the slower pace is the way food is thought about. "Slow food," all derived from local produce, freshly-caught seafood and naturally raised meat, is the only way one eats here. And, we know the people who grow the grapes and make the wines we drink. Far from our previous ways in corporate America, the life we now lead, the Pugliese life, is the one that makes us happy.

How does the cost of living in Italy compare to home?
Energy, in all its forms, is more expensive in Italy than it is in the US. For example, we pay nearly three times as much for gasoline here that we did in Pennsylvania. And, taxes here in Italy are ubiquitous. One can barely take a deep breath without having to pay one public entity or another for the privilege. On the other hand, food is abundant and is, therefore, relatively inexpensive. But it is the cost of our entertainment that has, by far, seen the largest reduction since we moved to Puglia. Theatre performances, Steeler games and expensive dinners out have been replaced by walks through the "centro storico" of towns throughout the area, strolls on the beaches of the Adriatic or Ionian Seas, or taking a strong, black caffe on a piazza and just watch the people go by.

Trullo nella Pineta, our vacation rental and labor of love
Trullo nella Pineta, our vacation rental and labor of love
What negatives, if any, are there to living in Italy?
Apropos to living in any place where the local language is not one's native tongue, not speaking fluent Italian has made our experience less-fulfilling than it would have been were we able to thoroughly engage with people on our community. This is especially the case in social settings where banter, wit, nuance and humor mostly fly directly over our heads without a pause. Time and effort will eliminate this as a challenge, however, and we will continue to plug away at the Rosetta Stone and various other language learning aids into which we have invested a great deal of capital.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving to Italy, what would it be?
Build relationships with locals and work as hard as you have to in order to maintain them. They can be sources of important information and, more importantly, great joy and enlightenment. At times, these relationships can be difficult to maintain, especially with language and cultural currents to navigate, but doing so will mean the difference between a soul-nourishing experience and the life of a tourist.

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
The infamy of the Italian bureaucracy is, in our experience, well-deserved. It is intrusive, cumbersome, self-perpetuating, capricious, and, at times, absolutely inexplicable. Navigating the illogical, constantly changing and often contradictory rules and regulations, interpreted differently depending on the particular functionary or day of the week, can be enormously frustrating.

When you finally return home, how do you think you'll cope with repatriation?
Assuming that we do return to the United States, it is very unlikely that we would go back to the harsh winters of the northeast. Frankly, I think there would be a difficult period of adjustment were we to re-locate to America during which we would have to allow our bodies to adapt to a different diet and our psyches to adapt to a different pace of life. Frankly, it's hard for me to imagine volunteering for that.

Jessica & Scott living the bella vita
Jessica & Scott living the bella vita
What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
  1. Be patient, both with your progress in acclimating to your new life and with the locals with whom you associate. What you're doing is not easy and your new friends come from a different cultural place than you do, one that is no less valid than yours is.
  2. Learn the language. Arrogance is the message you send to your new community should you require it to use your tongue.
  3. Get out and move. Travel around your area and find the places where locals gather. Engage them and learn what you can. In this way you will find the life to which you think you aspire.
  4. Be fearless and travel roads unknown, eat foods unfamiliar and speak to your neighbors even though you know that your language level may make you sound like a child.
  5. Celebrate with joy those special moments each time one appears. And, if you follow the previous tips, these will be many.
Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
"Soul of the Heel" is the story of an American couple that decides to leave jobs, friends and family and move from the USA to Puglia, the "heel" of Italy's boot. Often humorous, sometimes touching, always from the heart, it is about the transformational journey to a new life. It has also become a wonderful collaboration with Scott doing the writing and Jessica providing most of the beautiful photographs of the people we spend time with and the places we visit.

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
Like "Puglia Bound" on Facebook or send friend request to Scott Bergstein

About the author

Expat Blog ListingScott is an American expat living in Italy. Blog description: The (mis)adventures of an American couple living in Puglia, the Heel of Italy's Boot
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