The Italian Dream
Today we meet Thomas B. Christel, an American expat who married an Italian and decided to give life in Italy a shot. Here he describes how he has fallen in love with the culture and history on offer in the region and explains how his love of Italy has led him to become involved in an interesting business venture.
Can you please tell us a little about your background?
I am mid-west boy, born in Ohio, and lived in every state from Nebraska to New York. Did my University work at Michigan State University, where I had a swim scholarship and my masters study at the University of Notre Dame, for my MBA.
Where are you originally from and why did you move to Italy?
I have worked in Chicago and on the East coast, DC area, got into the start-up game for about 15 years and met my wife working for a Swiss-based start-up out of St. Gallen, Switzerland. We married in 2003, in Italy! My wife’s hometown of San Benedetto del Tronto, on the Adriatic sea. (3 hours due east of Rome) We decided to give Italy a try…
What were your first impressions of life in Italy?
My first impression was one of love for the Italian culture and history. Everything is measured in thousands of years and the history is really amazing. Even when my wife and I were house hunting for our B&B, the process of looking at villas, farm houses and monasteries, was a real treat for me.
Did you suffer from culture shock? How did you deal with your initial emotions?
No, matter where you go you will experience culture shock! But to go from the US (only speaking English) to a small town of 60,000 on the Adriatic coast where most Italians only speak Italian… puts you at a distinct disadvantage. First off, small towns, like San Benedetto del Tronto, are somewhat closed to outsiders. Most people my age have grown up with their current friends since childhood; so, as an expat, you are a new comer. I have made some inroads, by joining a local Master’s Swim Team, and working hard to learn the language. Also, by applying some of my skills helping start-up companies get off the ground, building business contacts and connections around Italy.
What do you like most about living in Italy?
That is easy, the “quality of life…” I live in paradise, overlooking the Adriatic sea on one side and the Sibillini mountains on the other. Our main focus is our family and that is wrapped around some of the best food and wines in the world. I work hard, but I have left the rat-race, allowing me to focus on what is important in life… my family!
What do you least enjoy?
There a few things that I find difficult to deal with…
1. Drivers in Italy—they use the traffic laws as only guidelines, with the attitude: if you are not caught… no harm, no fowl.
2. Pay scales in Italy, are well below International or European standards, except for the politicians, who are some of the highest paid in Europe.
3. The tax system—no breaks for small business, you are taxed like a Fortune 500 company in Italy, making it very difficult to cultivate a entrepreneur culture.
What are the three biggest lessons you have learned from your expat life?
1. Open your mind—you can’t apply a US culture over the Italian one. You need to have a very flexible attitude toward everything, until you have established yourself as part of the community.
2. Reach out / network—the more people you meet (other expats or Italians) the richer your experience will be. Look for others with similar interests and join in. For example, the best thing I did was to join a local master’s swim team. It’s a great way to meet people and make new friends.
3. Enjoy it all—the good and bad…you would be surprised what happens to you as an expat in a foreign country. Some of it is very comical and others you will laugh about later on, but the key to it all is to enjoy every minute: soak it up, take it in, and enjoy!
What advice would you give to someone who was relocating to Italy for the first time?
My best advice for someone relocating to Italy, is make connections and network prior to stepping foot in the country. You can go online and research, research, research…then join InterNations (expat social network site) for Italy or the location of your relocation. Connect and network with those who have already have done it…they will be a wealth of information and support.
While living abroad you have started your own bed and breakfast service. Please describe how this came about.
When my wife and I decided to live in Italy and move back to her home-town, we needed a way to support ourselves. Since San Benedetto del Tronto is a tourist town and my skills in international high-tech marketing had very little transferability, we looked at the local market for opportunities and choose to start a bed and breakfast.
What challenges have you faced with this business?
A couple of challenges comes to mind, first when we opened our B&B in March 2006, there were only a dozen or so B&Bs in San Benedetto del Tronto, now you can find over 60. B&Bs mushroomed across all of Italy as a way for people to obtain additional income. However, not all B&Bs are equal and can range from being a simple as a spare bedroom in someone’s apartment to a dedicated B&B infrastructure, such as B&B La Torretta Bianca (www.bebtorre.com).
The second challenge is the changing marketplace, due to the economic crisis. What was normally one to two weeks stays in the high season of July and August has turned into 2-3 night stays, requiring additional efforts on your part to fill the B&B and turn over the rooms. People just didn’t have the money for long vacations and now take mini-vacations instead.
What three pieces of advice would you give to people who want to leave the drudgery of 9-5 working behind and experience life abroad?
1. Be passionate about your decision! Going abroad should not be a spare-of-the-moment decision. Especially, if you plan to make it work and establish a long-term home.
2. Do your homework! Research any and all things about your target location. From establishing residency to obtaining a drivers license to choosing an area that meets all your needs and those of your wife and your family (education, etc.) and also has things of interest: sports, hobbies, etc.
3. Give it the 5 year test! Going abroad for a year is nice, especially as a college student on a student exchange, but that’s just having fun and learning a few things along the way, its not reality. To really get to know a new culture, new language, new location means living there for an extended period of time. To establish residency, to be gainfully employed, to be a contributing member of society, establish friendships, etc.. I would recommend 5 years. It would give you a real perspective on your new home country’s community, establishment, politics, education, healthcare and more.
What’s next for you?
Well, my wife and I passed our 5 year window, about a year ago. We have even invested in an apartment for rent, 3 blocks off the sea, expanding our B&B offering. We are establishing ourselves in the area and building a good reputation for our B&B.
I will continue my consulting work for Italian start-ups and project work for some US marketing agencies back in the US.