It’s Never Too Late to Pick Up Your Life and Move to Italy
It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the stories of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.
In 1978, when Holly Herrmann was 20, she flew to Bolzano, Italy, a scenic city in the foothills of the Tyrolean Alps, to compete in the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition. A native Californian, the budding concert pianist was taken with a country that was so intricately interwoven with classical music, food and beauty. She vowed to make it her home one day.
“By then I was living in Seattle, and this was my first time in Italy. I was fascinated by this cohesive, beautiful, historic center that was so wonderfully rich with life and activity,” Ms. Herrmann, now 63, said of the medieval heart of Bolzano. “Italy offered a different style of life that I enjoyed more than what I was experiencing at home. I knew at some point I would end up living there.”
Moving permanently to Italy would take 38 years. After her piano competition, she flew to New York to do groundwork for her planned move to Manhattan as a professional pianist. Then she flew to Seattle, where on her first day back she was introduced, through college friends, to Jim Herrmann. The two quickly began an intense friendship. Within a year they were married. Over the next several years they had two children. (Mr. Herrmann already had two children from a previous marriage.)Hopes of New York faded. Italy became even fainter.
The couple’s two-bedroom apartment overlooks Piazza dei Signori, a square in Padua’s historic center.Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times
But her dream of moving to Italy never died. In 2015, at her daughter’s urging, she spent a month in Orvieto, a medieval hill town in central Italy, to see if she was still passionate about the Italian way of life. Mr. Herrmann joined her for 10 days. The trip convinced them both that this should be their new reality. The deep desire for a lifestyle change became financially possible with the sale of their home and retirement savings.
In 2016, the couple picked up their lives in Seattle. Unsure of what their future would hold, they first rented their four-bedroom home, then later sold it along with their two cars and possessions too large to take with them. They boarded an Italy-bound plane with one carry-on and suitcase apiece. For two years, the couple lived in Lecce, a lively city in southern Italy with Baroque-era churches and narrow streets lined with rustic restaurants. But Lecce’s remoteness made it difficult to travel around Europe, so in 2018 they settled in Padua, an ancient city with arcaded streets and stylish cafes only a 33-minute train ride from Venice.
Today, the couple live in a two-bedroom apartment that overlooks Piazza dei Signori, a charming little square in the historic center of Padua. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)
What finally lit your fire?
A few times a year my kids would hear me say, “When I’m old I’m going to move to Italy.” The last time I said it, which was in 2015, my daughter said, “Why do you say when you’re old? Why don’t you make it happen now?” That really struck me. All of the limits I’d created — Jim, the kids, the house — were self-imposed to make me feel I couldn’t realize my dream. I needed to drop them and dream bigger and more freely. When I told Jim about wanting to move there, he surprised me by agreeing with my daughter that I should go for a month to see how I felt. Then all of the weight I was carrying around dropped off.
What steps did you take to make this work?
I signed up for Italian lessons in Seattle. I researched where I should spend the month. I had already experienced Bolzano, so I decided to go to Orvieto, which is a small city in Umbria that’s between Florence and Rome. Jim joined me and loved it.
When we returned home, we decided to make the move. In January 2016 Jim retired. I sold my Steinway seven-foot piano to a student of mine. We had an estate sale. We rented out our house in Seattle, which paid for our life in Italy. Later on, we sold the house to continue financing life here. We started in Lecce because we wanted to go to a place where the local population didn’t speak English and we’d be forced to speak Italian, which we were. Since then, I’ve become almost fluent.
How did you navigate all of the challenges of living in a foreign country?
I didn’t want life to become boring. I wanted it filled with adventure. If you want that, then move to a different country. Early on in Lecce we broke the handle off our pot. We only needed a simple screw but that mundane act became a five-hour adventure. How do we find a hardware store? What’s the Italian word for handle? How do we take the bus to get there? I wanted our post-retirement life filled with challenges, that’s why I thrive here.
Did you see this move as a second act?
I have a palpable feeling that one chapter has ended and another began. My life story now includes that I live in Italy. It’s not a new book, but a new exciting chapter — written in Italian.
How has this experience changed you?
I feel like my life is rich here. Italians have an art of living. They take pleasure in the small moments. I’ve learned to do that, too. I feel seen and understood in a way I wasn’t before.
How is your Italian life different from your Seattle life?
It’s changed dramatically in that we no longer own a car. We live within the center of a beautiful historic town that includes a nearby river that we take walks along almost every day where we arrive at the “Specola,” which is an observatory built on top of an ancient tower. We shop, go to restaurants and outdoor fruit and vegetable markets, meet friends all within a few block radius of our apartment. We can take a train to have lunch or dinner in Venice whenever we want. Before the pandemic we traveled easily all over Europe.
What kind of advice can you offer someone who feels stuck?
Make a list of five essential things that need to happen to make your plan a reality. Start with one. Don’t look at all of them because that can be overwhelming. If you can accomplish one, then go to two. Then see if you can finish the list. Don’t do anything drastic. Do a test run to see if you’re suitable for this kind of life and if it makes you happy or uncomfortable. I had a strong drive to do this. If you’re compelled to do something, you should attempt to do it.
What is something life has taught you?
Regret is useless. You can’t go back and change any decision you made. Try to embrace right where you are, that unlocks the future. When you are centered and focused on the joy and beauty of your life, life unfolds effortlessly. Regret doesn’t play a part in that philosophy.
We’re looking for people who decide that it’s never too late to switch gears, change their life and pursue dreams. Should we talk to you or someone you know? Share your story here.