In this 3-part interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Stacey Keith on her move from Houston to Italy.
I first heard about Stacey during the blog tour for her novel Dream On when she shared her story on moving to Italy.
As an immigrant, her story resonated with me so much that I had to share with you. Check out part 1 below.
You’ve done something that all of us have thought about doing at one point in time or another. The thing is, you had the brass balls to do it and for that, you have my utmost respect.
Okay, so let’s start from the beginning…
You quit your job, sold your car and moved to Italy with two suitcases of your stuff. What made you do it? Had you been to Italy before? Did you know anyone there?
Life as a single mom is not easy. I was working seven days a week just to make ends meet. I had four jobs, three of which actually paid: I was a group fitness instructor at 24-Hour Fitness in Houston, a personal trainer for a select clientele, a writer for UpClose magazine and a freelance writer of novels. My critique group of twelve years met in my cramped dining room with my two cats and two kids. In hindsight, where I found the time to do any of this, I can’t say, but I did perfect the art of power napping in my car.
I was sitting with my bestie, Joyce Kaufman, one day in front of the computer and happened to see a sidebar ad for a writing workshop in Italy with Natalie Goldberg (of Writing Down The Bones fame). All I did was sigh longingly for the kind of life where such junkets were possible, and Joyce got it into her head that come hell or high water, I was going. Unbeknownst to me, she started passing the hat around to all my classes and collecting air miles from a generous Facebook friend, Jim Mazzei. Joyce called me about three weeks before departure and said in her droll, inimitable way, “Let me ask you something. Do you have a passport?”
The minute I set foot in Italy, I knew I was home. It was an eerie feeling, to tell you the truth, because I’d never experienced it before. I knew absolutely no Italian. In fact, the first thing I did after getting off the plane was hightail it into the men’s room because I couldn’t read the signs saying uomini (men) and donne (women). A bus collected me and about forty other American writers and took us to Villa Lina, a beautiful eighty-acre organic farm in a little town called Ronciglione. I was in heaven.
But poor Natalie did not hit it off with her students. Almost from the moment we arrived, Natalie laid down a moratorium on drinking wine. In Italy. She said it was because wine “polluted our instrument.” Personally, I hate wine, so I didn’t have any skin in the game, but even I could see how problematic this would be with ladies who came to Italy to write, socialize, and have a grand adventure in vino. By Friday of that week, the organizer had chartered a bus to whisk us away from Villa Lina where mutinous cabals had formed to plot Natalie’s overthrow, and take us to Calcata, which is an artists’ colony that sits on top of a rock in the Treja Valley.
Sixty people of all nationalities live in Calcata. I was delirious with happiness as I wandered its cobbled streets and drank in its breathtaking panoramic views. I was sitting on the steps of a 15th-century church, former home of the foreskin of Christ (until it mysteriously disappeared one day) when a man walked past me, a gorgeous man that I knew at once was not Italian. I also knew he would turn around and talk to me, which he did. He claimed to be the grandson of famous American songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. His name was John.
Thus began the ecstasy and the agony of our passionate long-distance romance. We had an unforgettable week together in New York a few months later. I swapped personal training sessions for air miles so I could visit him in Calcata. In addition to our deepening relationship, I was also falling in love with Italy.
Houston is a thriving city full of wonderful people, but it’s never going to win any beauty awards. Sitting in soul-deadening traffic was a torment when all I could think about were crumbling Italian walls covered in blood-red roses. Instead of thousand-year-old churches, I had ten thousand screaming billboards. Instead of real coffee, I had burnt vanilla roast at Starbuck’s.
In the States, it’s all buy, buy, buy. In Italy, there aren’t even chain stores. Not many. In the States, I lived in a crappy apartment behind a mall. In Italy, John’s apartment overlooked a fog-strewn cobblestone street. A part of me was dying a slow death of heartsickness—not just because of John, whom I loved, but because Italy had taken up permanent residence in my soul. I wanted it so badly I barely let myself want it at all.
Then two things happened. First, my son turned eighteen, graduated from high school, and told me he wanted to live with his father who’d just bought a big house not located behind a mall. Then a few weeks after that, John invited me to move to Italy to live with him. We’d been doing the long-distance thing for over two years now and had reached a “do or die” juncture in our relationship. We were ready.
With my son flying the coop and my thirteen-year-old daughter eager to have me homeschool her in Italy, the decision was an easy one to make. I hated saying goodbye to my students, my friends, and my family, but a part of me always knew I was destined to be there. Was I panicked out of my mind? You can’t even imagine. I was betting everything I had and I was betting it against the house.
I was going to Italy on very little money, rolling the dice that my part-time writing could become full-time employment, and ruthlessly gambling on an untried relationship with a man who’d been a lifelong bachelor. But Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” and I’d always preached that kind of seize-life-by-the-balls philosophy to my students. Now I was about to put it to the test.
More than three years later, John and I are still going strong. We’ve been through good times, great times and lean times. Very lean. As in sometimes-we-didn’t-have-enough-money-to-eat lean. But Italy never really lets you starve. Italians are the most generous people in the world. They’re always ready to feed you.
My daughter’s tenure was disappointingly short. The culture shock hit her pretty hard and I promised not to keep her in Italy if she didn’t want to stay. Now she can’t wait to come back. Italy will do that to you. It works its way into your blood and you can never get it out again.
Nothing in this country works well—or at all. When repairmen say they’re coming to your house, that could be today or a month from now. But if you live with no expectations, along with a gentle understanding that life in Italy happens on its timetable, not yours, you can be very happy here. Unlike the United States, it’s actually affordable to live as an artist. I am surrounded by deliriously beautiful countryside, incredible food, and a fascinating culture.
Moving to Italy—doing something that terrified me—changed me on a molecular level. I will never regret it. I’m not afraid anymore. Of anything.
About Stacey Keith
Stacey Keith is the award-winning author of the Dreams Come True series (Kensington Books), Dream On, Sweet Dreams and Dream Lover, in addition to A Wedding On Bluebird Way with New York Times Bestseller authors Janet Dailey, Lori Wilde and the talented Allyson Charles.
Twice a Golden Heart finalist, Stacey has won a Maggie, two Silver Quills, a Jasmine, a Heart of the Rockies, and over fifteen other first-place finishes in Romance Writers of America contests.
An avid writer of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and short stories, Stacey doesn’t own a television, but reads compulsively—and would, in fact, go stark raving bonkers without books, which are crammed into all corners of the house. She now lives in Civita Castellana, a medieval village in Italy that sits atop a cliff, and spends her days writing in a nearby abandoned 12th-century church.
The two things she is most proud of are her ability to cook pasta alla genovese without burning down the kitchen and swearing volubly in Italian with all the appropriate hand gestures.
Connect with Stacey:
Books By Stacey Keith