Who are you?
We are a Belgian couple, Ben and Estel (46 and 42 years young), who share a love for travel. One country in particular stole our hearts a long time ago, and that country is Italy.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
Italy has the best food in the entire world, the language makes you feel elegant, and the people there still care about their family and friends. For those reasons, in February 2022, we decided to move to Petacciato, a village of 3000 people in the region of Molise, referred to by Italians as Molise non esiste (Molise the non-existent region).
What challenges did you face during the move?
To be honest, our move went very smoothly. We sold our house in Belgium, put our belongings in two trucks and drove 1,680 km from one home to the other. For the first six months we lived in our holiday house (which is on the same land as our house) because our newly constructed house was not ready yet.
Did you need to obtain a visa, residency permit or work permit? What was the process like?
We are European citizens, so we did not need any permits before our move, but we did need a lot of paperwork to construct our houses, and boy, what an adventure that was! Every village has its own regulations, and those can change overnight. To be able to own a property or buy something, you need a Tax ID code known as a ‘codice fiscale’, which you can order online. That was the only easy step in the entire process. The rest of the process took a lot of time, and we had to talk to about 10 different people to obtain one permit. Most of all there was a lot of waiting (waiting, waiting, waiting). To be honest, if Ben hadn’t spoken Italian at the time, I think we wouldn’t have been able to finish our houses in the timeframe we did. The bureaucracy in Italy is a pain in the backside. So be patient and talk to the locals; they usually know best.
How does the cost of living compare with your previous country?
To live in the South of Italy, you do not have to be rich. Fruit and vegetables are not only very tasty but also cheap. A lot of local farmers sell their products in the markets for a fifth of the price in Belgium. And remember to bring cash!
Is it easy to open and use an account with a local bank?
Everything is paid in cash; we were the only ones asking if we could pay by card. After a couple of weeks, we realized that this wasn’t working. So yes, you do need a bank account, and that is easily opened at a local bank, but you will not use it a lot. And please ask the locals about how much they pay in fees for their account, because in the beginning they charged us triple.
Are there many other expats in your area?
There are only eight other foreigners living in our village, all Swiss, and it is not a well-known place yet. We found it by accident, driving around a couple of times during our holidays in Italy. Its location made it the ideal place for us, five minutes from the beach and 45 minutes from the mountains.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
Moving to a small village where there are not a lot of foreigners, makes you feel like a circus attraction sometimes. People stare at you for the first couple of weeks, and after that ‘looking’ period, they approach you to ask three questions: Where are you from? What are you doing here? And do you have children? Once they get to know you, they become your friends, or they want to take advantage of you. So be careful in the beginning with who you trust and do business with. Send your husband to all the different bars (that’s a lot of nights…). This is the best way to get to know the people, the gossip, the experiences of others, and the relationships between all the different families. Why send the men? Well, in our village the women don’t go to bars, only during the summer. The South of Italy is still very old school in that sense.
What do you like about life where you are?
The best part of living here is the food, the sun, and the pace of life.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
The disadvantage is that this beautiful pace of life can be very annoying when you want to finish a project in a certain period. Everything is always put off until tomorrow…
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
The biggest difference for me, between Belgium and the South of Italy, is the position of women in society. In Belgium, I was, and still am, a businesswoman. But here, most women stay at home to take care of the kids. So, during our different projects here in Petacciato, the men would only talk to Ben, not to me. It was always ‘men’s business’. After a year, the people who got to know me better started to respect me, but they still find it strange that I love business so much and that we do not have kids.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
The best advice I would give somebody who wants to move to Italy would be “learn the language as fast as possible”. They will respect you for that, and it will make your life a lot easier.
What are your plans for the future?
So, after one year I can say we are both very happy with our decision to move. We make our own olive oil from our 350 trees (Al Fianco); we have a holiday house we rent (Casa Al Fianco); and we organize retreats for companies. We are also thinking of building tiny houses soon. We still have a lot of plans but are also enjoying the good life while making them.
Visit Ben and Estel’s website, Al Fianco, to learn more about their story.