After living in Manhattan for more than two decades and New Jersey for five years, Charles “Chuck” H. Stevens and Berardino “Ben” Di Rienzo were ready for something new.
The US couple, who’ve been together for around 37 years and married for 12, say they felt as though they were spending most of their time working to keep up their lifestyles and something had to give.
“We were getting towards retirement age, and we were trying to decide what to do,” Stevens, who previously worked as a creative director, tells CNN Travel.
“New York is very expensive. And we had really kind of done everything that we wanted to do.”
Although they hadn’t spent a lot of time in Italy, both felt a strong connection to the European country after having traveled over to meet the family of Di Rienzo, who is of Italian descent, and had returned a couple of times since their first trip.
When the global pandemic hit in 2020 and they lost a friend to Covid-19, Di Rienzo and Stevens say they realized that they “needed to start enjoying” the lives that they’d “worked so hard to afford.”
It was then that they decided to bite the bullet and begin looking for their very own property in Italy.
“We wanted to do more traveling, and spend more time in Europe than in the United States,” explains Di Rienzo, who previously worked as a business office manager for an assisted living company.
“So our initial thought was to live six months in the United States, then six months in Italy.”
Although they were searching throughout all of Italy initially, the couple decided to focus on the town of Vinchiaturo Molise in southern Italy’s Molise, known as the “forgotten region,” which happens to be where Di Rienzo’s family are from.
“Ben said, ‘If we’re going to do this, I’d like to be close to my family,’” explains Stevens.
They soon found a listing for a property in an older section of the town, where Di Rienzo’s great aunt had once lived, and were immediately impressed by the views of the Apennine mountains and the valley below the town.
“The view is what sold us on the house,” admits Stevens.
The pair went on to purchase the two-bedroom property in September 2021 for just under 100,000 euros (around $108,000.)
“We had seen all the one euro houses,” adds Stevens. “And I was looking at ones for around 40,000 to 60,000 euros in this town.
“But they needed a lot of work. This one just needed a little bit of cosmetic work.”
“But the beauty of this one was that it came with two stone ruins that we are actually going to work on.”
Although the couple had planned to move back and forth between Italy and the US, after trying it out for a little while, it didn’t take long for the pair to discover that they preferred life in Italy.
“Each time that we came, it was harder to leave,” says Stevens, noting that learning that the company he worked for would be relocating to the west coast of the US played a factor in their decision.
“Both of our parents are deceased. We don’t have children. So when it came through about my job relocating, it was just kind of like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Di Rienzo goes on to explain that they knew that Italy would ultimately offer them a better lifestyle during their retirement years.
“We analyzed our quality of life in the United States versus our quality of life in Europe,” he says.
“And Europe just gave us a better quality of life – and I could be closer to my family here.”
Di Rienzo’s Italian heritage meant that the visa process was much simpler for the pair.
“My father was an Italian citizen when I was born,” he explains. “So legally, I just needed to be recognized as an Italian.”
Stevens was able to get a carta di soggiorno, which allows him to remain in the country for five years, as the spouse of an Italian.
Once they’d made up their minds, the couple went about making arrangements to sell their home in New Jersey and completely leave their lives in the US behind, a process that took them just three months.
“We both had to quit our jobs,” says Stevens. “We literally sold [nearly] everything we owned. We booked the flight with our dog. And we were here. Our friends were like, ‘What is going on?’”
In October 2022, Di Rienzo and Stevens arrived back in Italy, with their beloved dog Max in tow, safe in the knowledge that they would be remaining for the foreseeable future.
“For the first couple of months, it felt like we were on vacation,” says Di Rienzo. “[We felt] like we’re going to need to pack up and leave [soon].
“And then reality would hit and we’d realize that we don’t have to leave. We’re here. This is not a vacation. This is now our life.”
Since then, the couple have thrown themselves into life in Vinchiaturo Molise, learning how to make cheese, press olive oil, grow their own food and even how to “kill and butcher a pig.”
“We’ve had so many amazing experiences this past year,” says Stevens. “Just learning about real Italian life living. Being in a rural area that has kind of been untouched has been amazing.”
They’ve been welcomed with open arms by the locals, particularly Di Rienzo’s family, who are thrilled that they’ve decided to live there permanently.
“It just restored my faith in humanity,” says Stevens. “Because people are genuinely respectful, and kind. They’re so excited. We’re known as ‘the Americans.’”
While Di Rienzo speaks a little Italian, Stevens says he’s “still learning.”
“I’m speaking it like an American, and I need to speak more like an Italian,” he says. “So I need to find an Italian teacher here this year.”
While they were concerned about how Max the dog, who had to be microchipped and cleared medically before they could bring him over, would settle in a new country, they’ve been pleasantly surprised.
“He’s happier than he’s ever been,” says Di Rienzo.
They all spend a lot of time outdoors now, and say they feel that their lifestyles are much healthier.
“Everything here is fresh,” explains Stevens, pointing out that they’ve had to get used to buying produce daily rather than stocking up on everything in advance like they did in the US.
“You can’t do that here. Since everything is so pure, the life of the food is short.”
‘La Dolce Vita’
The couple have also learned to do lunch the Italian way, and joke that they spend much of their mornings discussing their lunch plans.
“Everyone takes lunch very seriously here,” adds Stevens, before describing their “wonderful three-hour gourmet lunches” during summertime.
“That’s kind of the height of the day,” says Stevens. “We’ll do a little bit of work in the garden in the morning. But at midday, everything stops for lunch.”
When it comes to eating out, they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the local restaurants.
“The chefs in the area here really put their heart and soul into things,” says Di Rienzo. “We’ve found some restaurants that are Manhattan quality at a quarter of the price.”
They also love the accessibility of living in the Molise, which is considered to be Italy’s least visited region, and the fact that they’re just a few hours drive from Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast.
“We love to travel and this is a good home base,” says Stevens. “We really like traveling through Europe.”
Both concede that they’ve found it difficult to adjust to driving in Italy, which is very different to the US.
“I don’t know about other parts of Europe,” says Di Rienzo. “But Italian drivers are much more aggressive.”
Thankfully, their home is situated within walking distance of the local restaurants, doctor’s office and grocery stores, so they can get to most places on foot.
“Our mobility is way better,” adds Stevens. “It reminds us of living in Manhattan.”
As for affordability, the couple say that their pension goes a lot further in Italy, while medical costs are also considerably less.
“We didn’t realize how overly-priced medical [care] is in America, for the same sort of procedure,” says Stevens. “And I find the quality level comparable to the New York/New Jersey area.”
There are few other expats in the area according to the pair, who describe their new town as “a beautiful slice of real Italy.”
And Di Rienzo is hugely grateful to be living in a place that has so much history for his family.
“To think that I’m walking the streets that my great-grandparents walked is just mind boggling sometimes,” he says.
“My grandfather was actually born in the house that’s three doors down from ours. And my mother was born just a couple of houses up the block from us.”
The renovation work on their home, which has so far cost 25,000 euros (around $27,000), is still ongoing.
They’ve already made some modifications to the main house and plan to transform the ruin behind their home into a large rustic kitchen.
However, they say they’ve learned to be relaxed about the speed of the renovation process.
“The first words I learned from the Italian workers were ‘piano piano,’ which is ‘slowly, slowly,’” jokes Stevens.
They say that they’d advise anyone hoping to buy and renovate a home in Italy to be mindful that things might not move as quickly as they would hope.
“The expectation of getting your house renovated within six months to a year, that’s not going to happen,” says Di Rienzo. “You have to be able to come with the mindset that it’s a process.”
In fact, the pair, who launched a YouTube channel about their experiences in 2022, stress that relocating from the US to a country like Italy requires a great deal of flexibility in general.
“If you expect the world to change for you, this is not the place for you,” says Stevens. “You need to come here and learn. Like any country, you need to learn to blend yourself into their culture.”
Now happily settled, the couple are extremely excited about the future and can’t envision living in the US again.
And while Di Rienzo aims to return to visit his US-based relatives at some stage, Stevens has no plans to go back at all.
“Personally, I have no desire [to go back,]” he says. “I did everything I needed to do [in America.] I’m very happy here.”
While they may not be in a rush to return to the US, there are some things that they miss about living there – diverse food options being one of them.
“We’ll watch a movie and there’ll be Chinese takeout,” says Stevens. “And we’ll be like, ‘Oh Chinese takeout.’ Or, ‘Oh man, Mexican tacos.’ But that little bit does not outweigh all the pluses [of Italy.] It’s been an amazing adventure.”
Di Rienzo was officially recognized as an Italian citizen last January, and Stevens plans to apply for citizenship as a domestic spouse once he’s eligible.
“We’ve been here a little over a year now, and I’m still like, ‘Pinch me, is this real?’” says Stevens.
“I feel like I’m in an Italian movie. It’s been wonderful. It really was the best decision of our lives.”
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