Posted by: 4initalia | September 4, 2011

Let’s Do It

How do you decide to blow off a secure job, leave your home and possessions, and live for a year in another country?  It helped that I worked for a boss who was so soul-crushing that every morning of our monthly staff meeting, I sobbed so hard I couldn’t lift my torso off the bathroom counter.  Which is pretty much what inspired Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, although her sobbing took place on the bathroom floor, (I suspect her floor was cleaner than mine) and her expenses were covered by a book advance.


My husband Andy is a professor, and every seven years, he can take a sabbatical. A sabbatical gives a tenured professor time to dedicate to research and a reason for people with normal jobs to say “They pay you to live in cool places?  What is up with that?”  Andy could have taken off from ten weeks to a full year, but the longer he was away, the less he would be paid.  As an attorney for the Feds, I could leave for no more than three weeks, and I’d be back on the bathroom counter just in time for the next staff meeting. So I was ready to pull the plug. This was also a good time to take our trip of a lifetime: our kids were thirteen and seven, and when the next sabbatical rolled around, Alex would be in college. If we were going to live in another country as a family, we’d have to do it now.

So Andy and I sat at the kitchen table, and decided where to go and how long to stay away. “I want to live in Italy,” I said.  For how long? asked Andy.  “&*@ it,” I said. “A year.” And then we took a slow-moving leap off a very steep cliff.

What’s amazing is that Andy so willingly jumped with me.

Once the decision was made, making the arrangements was complicated. If we were gone for a year, we wouldn’t have my salary, and we’d have only half of Andy’s. But Andy planned to teach a course for American college students at the University of Bologna.  That would give us some additional income, and the University would pay for our housing for the months Andy was teaching.  And we knew that if we were gone for a year, we’d get a refund of all the Federal taxes from of Andy’s salary, which would cushion our re-entry.

There were so many questions. Where would we live?  Andy would have an office in Bologna, and would teach there.  Our kids spoke no Italian, so we didn’t want to throw them into Italian schools. There was an international school in Bologna, but Alex was too old.  If we were all going to return to the United States together, home schooling was not an option. Luckily we found an excellent school that would take both kids, the International School of Modena. We wouldn’t have a car, but the school, located in an obscure suburb, provided bus service.  Classes were taught in English,  the kids would get four and a half hours of instruction in Italian per week, and the students came from all over the world. What an opportunity for our kids to learn about the world by being in it.

And then we found our apartment.  Actually, Enrica, Andy’s assistant in Bologna, found it. From the pictures she sent us, it was small (90 square feet) but clean and conveniently located next to a tiny train station that looked like a set from Thomas the Train.  We were charmed, and agreed to sign a lease.

Once we had an apartment, and a school,  we needed travel documents. For visits to Italy of more than three months, the Italian government requires passports and a visa. So we got our passports, and started the lengthy visa process, which required a personal visit to the Italian Consulate.  Oh, but not in Denver. To get a visa, we needed to visit the Italian Consulate in Chicago. With a few weeks before the application deadline, we booked tickets to Chicago, and landed just after Obama’s historic acceptance speech in Grant Park.

The Consulate required an epic list of documents: Visa applications. Proof of insurance that would cover us internationally.  Passports.  And photos that had to be signed on the back. We inexplicably needed three copies of some of the documents, fifteen copies of  some, and forty copies of others.

Andy and I were each alloted 15 minutes to see the consulate official. If we missed our alloted time, we’d have to reapply for a new appointment. We hit traffic, a car in the parking garage, and had to run to the office. Looking down, I was horrified to learn that I was wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe.  I thought that was the kind of thing that would get you denied a visa, at least for Italy.

When we got to the Consulate office, the Italian officials were seated behind floor to ceiling bullet-proof  glass with a tiny slot at the bottom to slide in papers and perhaps a gun. We had no idea what to do, so we sought guidance from the consulate receptionist, but she had her hands full with signing a UPS delivery receipt and dealing with her own personality.

We sat down and waited to be called while people fearfully approached and retreated from the windows. As time ticked away, I noticed that I had a 360′ view of the eyeballs of all of the people in the waiting area, because wherever they were in the processing process, they all knew that they were fifteen minutes away from annihilating their travel plans, were nowhere close to completing their paperwork, and jammed open their eyelids in fearful disbelief.

Finally, a growling Italian called our name, grabbed our stack of papers, and slid them under the glass.  He ignored some of the very documents that required the most duplication, scoffed at some, and demanded more copies of others. And then he barked that he couldn’t process our visas because we had failed to attach our photos to the applications.  We totally understood that, because of course we would sign the photo and then seal it to the application.  ?

With only minutes remaining, we tore downstairs to a copy center, made copies, and found glue for our pictures. Yikes. We made it back in time, and were ready to celebrate our success. And then Signore Cranky demanded to see the lease for our apartment. We didn’t have a lease, but we did have landlords, and an email confirming that we’d sign the papers in Italy. “NO!” he blasted. “You must have a signed lease orNO VISA!!” With that he stomped a hand stamp over our documents, and we were dismissed.

Several weeks later, our passports arrived in the mail, with a year-long visa attached. We were going to Italy. For a whoooollle year.

I tacked a postcard of a Vespa parked on an Italian street to the wall above my office computer.  I told clients I was leaving, but not my heinous boss. I saved that for my last staff meeting.  The boss, a tiny but vicious man who was later reassigned to prevent contact with humans, ended the meeting with his usual “Does anyone have anything else to add?”

“I do.” I announced. “This is my last staff meeting. I’m leaving to spend a year in Italy.”  The boss’s head snapped back on his head hard enough to chip a few vertebrae. “You’re what?!”

“I’m leaving. I’m going to spend a year in Italy.”  His face began to pale and puff, exactly like a marshmallow cooking in a microwave.  “”You’re…leaving?” It was all I could do not  to reply: “Oh, so that means you weren’t bugging my office?”

“Where will you live in Italy?” he sputtered.

“In Modena. In the north, near Bologna. It’s where they make Ferraris and balsalmic vinegar.” And where the boss had spent idyllic summers taking tennis lessons while he was in college.  I chatted brightly about my coming adventures teaching and traveling, and thanked everyone for being such wonderful colleagues. It was the most satisfying quitting scene in history, and I enjoyed every second.


  1. I can’t wait for more my brilliant friend. You are a fantastic writer and had me laughing out loud, no really, LOL!

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