A Visit to Florence, Italy and Bergamo, Italy

Recently, I returned to Florence, Italy to visit old friends and take care of some final business. I was a little worried about returning. I had spent years of aching and longing to live there before I moved permanently in 2010. Since I had been gone, I had not missed a lot about Florence, but would returning spark that old flame?

Arriving into the train station at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, I stepped off the train. I knew immediately that I was at home. Everything was welcoming, familiar, and beautiful. However, my heart was no longer here. My decision and the timing to move to Tangier was the right one.

I enjoyed a lovely week of visiting friends and walking in the city. Museums or exhibits were of no interest to me this time and had no desire to visit them.  I felt saturated with the “things” that the city had offered me and just being there was enough. My friends and I breakfasted, lunched, and dined together and even had an aperitivo or two. I closed down my bank account, which oddly was the only sentimental or emotional moment of the week.

As I sat in the chair across from the bank manager, I remembered when I had opened the account years ago. It had been quite the accomplishment. In order to do so, I had to have my permesso di soggiorno and my residency. It had taken a little over a year to do it. In the meantime, in order to pay bills like rent, water, and gas, I had to go to the ATM machine and withdraw money.

The day I opened the account I entered the bank nervously. I had practiced my still struggling Italian to indicate that I wanted to open an account, but was fearful of the questions that might come my way and if I would understand them. When I left the bank that day with my account opened, I cannot describe the feeling of accomplishment. So, closing it down brought all of that to mind. I was closing the last chapter of the time in my life when I lived in Florence.

When I left Florence to return to Tangier, I had a flight out of Bergamo, a city that I had not visited before. I went there a day early in order to explore and found another Italian gem. Bergamo has a citta alta (upper city) and a citta bassa )lower city. You get to the upper city on a funicular or cable car that goes up the hill.

It’s a lovely view going up and a beautiful pedestrian well kept. The upper city is medieval with Venetian Walls and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Narrow cobblestone streets and a sweeping grand piazza characterize it. I would like to spend some more time in Bergamo. It is one of those Italian towns straight out of a fairytale.

A Piece of Ocean

Seeing a little piece of the ocean each day gives me such a boost. I lived most of my life in “landlocked” places. Even when I lived in the Washington D.C. area and in Boston, my glimpses of the ocean were rare. Growing up in Tennessee, we spent a lot of time on the lake. We fished with my father or skied behind a boat. We often vacationed at the Florida beaches nearby.

When my sons were growing up in Alexandria, VA, we vacationed at the sea of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The sea has always been a great getaway. It’s relaxing, the air is salty but clear and the power of the waves is mesmerizing.

Out of my new apartment windows, I can see three pieces of the sea. I can see the Tangier Bay and two spots of the Strait of Gibraltar on the Mediterranean. Every morning I get out of bed and stroll to the window to get my morning dose of freedom. That’s what the sea represents to me, freedom. Visiting the sea while vacationing was freedom from my daily work life in the office and at home. As a child, visiting the sea meant new things to explore like sandcastles and seashells.

As an adult, I’ve traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, cruised the Mediterranean, the Baltic, Adriatic, and Ionian seas, swam in the Ligurian and Tyherranian, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean seas. I’ve taken ferries down the Bosporus from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Being on the sea is always exhilarating and exciting.

Today, my small piece of the ocean reminds me of those trips and future possibilities. Walking throughout Tangier you can catch glimpses of the sea at the end of streets and the tops of hills. I’m invigorated with every sighting. My freedom is alive.

A Year in Tangier

It’s been a year now since we embarked on our Moroccan adventure. We got on the ferry in Genoa and landed at Tangier med 49 hours later. It was exciting, exhilarating, scary, and stressful as big changes can be.

After a year here, I am reliving those memories of our arrival and examining how I’ve adapted (or not) to the customs and culture. The call to prayer echoes through my apartment and the city five times a day marking the passing of the day. Sometimes I am soothed by it. Sometimes it is such a normal part of the background sounds that I hardly notice.

Shop owners smile and welcome me now. Usually they know what I’ve come for and are ready to help should I decide in my schoolgirl French to ask for something different.

Still, the language continues to be my biggest challenge. I’ve studied French for a year and a half and feel confident in my reading skills. These are important since menus, instructions, products, signs, and most printed materials are in French. Speaking is another matter. My pronunciation is poor, not as many people speak French in Tangier as I had thought. Sometimes I speak a little Spanish or resort to Italian for Spanish speakers because they usually understand it. This year my goal is to learn more Darija which is the Moroccan Arabic dialect spoken throughout Morocco. I know about 70 words now but can’t string a full sentence together.

The weather is a highlight of living here. Hot summer days with cool nights, sunny winters with moderate temperatures, a short rainy season, and the time in-between with perfect 75-degree temperatures and lovely breezes.

Seeing the sea every day is now a necessity. It is easy to do, as there are glimpses almost everywhere you go and every street you are on in the Medina and in Centreville. Still, none of the views is as stunning as the one from my apartment window.

Daily life is slow and lovely here. The days start late and the shops think about opening around 10:30 or 11:00. Lunches are normally at 2-3 and dinners at 9-10.

Additionally, fresh vegetables, fruits, and lovely fresh fish appear at the market every day and on Thursday and Sunday, individual farmers make their way into the city to sell their wares. The quality, size, colors, and tastes are incredible.

I’ve learned about the necessity of the hammam experience and it is a part of my routine now. The bathing and cleansing ritual serves as a physical and emotional detoxification and releases stress, anxiety, and allows deep relaxation.

There are things that I don’t like. Some areas of the city need improvements in sanitation pickup and trash removal. Sidewalks and roads can be in a state of disrepair. Also, poor people with disabilities, injuries, or mental health issues ask for money on the street. Stray cats that are unhealthy or injured are left to fend for themselves. All of these usually found in large cities throughout the world.

Overall, the year has been full of wonder, adventure, education, and pleasure. I love living in Tangier.

Above all, we’ve had many friends and family to visit. We’ve made new friends here and settled into a social network that includes meals out with friends, dinner parties, movies, day trips, beach and pool days, volunteer work, and I’ve taken on a new part-time job teaching English.

Most importantly, I can’t wait to see what the coming years in Morocco will bring.

The Life I Imagined by Karen Mills

Morocco is not my first experience living abroad. I lived in Italy for seven years permanently after taking a one-year sabbatical in Florence. At that point in my life, I had a very successful career, two grown children, and had divorced a few years earlier. At this point, I was saying, “Is this all there is?”

I made a New Year’s Resolution to make some changes. Specifically, I decided to “live somewhere else and do something different”. After looking around for other opportunities in other cities for my job, I decided to step out of the box. If I could live anywhere I wanted, where would that be and what would I do. The result was a year in Florence, Italy learning the Italian language and so much more.

I wrote a book about that first year called, The Life I Imagined


You can find it on Amazon in hardcopy or as an eBook. Read it and change your life!

An excerpt to whet your appetite.

The Life I Imagined

When the plane touched down in Venice, the departure point of the cruise, I felt strong, independent, and excited. The ride from the airport to the pier was a blur, and a water taxi took me to my hotel. I looked at the rippling water in the amazing red and gold sunrise glowing on the antique, ornate palaces and felt the stirrings of something inside. A bubbling up of who I might be, where I might go; the life I might lead in the future dawned like the new day over Venice. I laughed aloud and then cried with joy. Other passengers turned and looked at me with puzzled faces. We were all tired after the long overnight flight, and I laughed again and chalked it up to my emotions.

The rest of that day spurred on by some well of energy that had surfaced with this new feeling, I walked the city. I could feel the smile on my face as I took photos of everything and everybody. I noticed things that I probably wouldn’t normally notice; the curve of the wrought iron on a terrace, people kissing by the ocean, an old man eating gelato alone on a park bench, and the smell of the sea.

I got lost in the alleyways and narrow streets and crisscrossed the many bridges over the canals, gasping when I came upon the rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs. I booked dinner for one in a fabulously expensive restaurant and drank prosecco, Italy’s bubbly, elegant answer to champagne and people-watched others at nearby tables.

Teaching English

Me, teaching English?  Okay!  In 2011, I received my TEFL certification from a school in Florence, Italy.  It was my first year living abroad, and although retired, I thought I could make some extra money teaching English.  The course was a grueling month long, but in the end, I passed with flying colors.

I taught English in Italy for about six months.  I had six private students.  Two were 5 years old, two were ten years old, and two were 20 years old.  The pay was not great and the prep work for teaching was much more than I had bargained for.  After six months, I had decided to live without the extra income.

I haven’t taught since then, and I haven’t really thought much about it.  Until recently, when a woman contacted me.  She had found my name and profile on Facebook on an expat forum.  She inquired about whether I was interested or not, and after some consideration, I decided to pursue the opportunity.

This all started in May.  There was an interview; there were forms to complete and an English proficiency test to complete.  Now I am ready to face a weeklong training session on the Berlitz method of teaching.  This prospect has me terrified and filled with dread.

It’s not the training I fear; it’s the 9:30 to 5:30 schedule for five days straight.  Yes, spoiled as I am, I no longer wake up by an alarm clock with someplace to be early in the morning.  My days are free to do as I please and full of traveling, marketing, trying out new recipes, sightseeing, lunch with friends, volunteer work, walks on the beach, trips to the pool, watching movies and reading.  Hardly anything is scheduled and definitely not at 9:30 in the morning!

Okay, I know you don’t feel sorry for me, nor should you.  I still am not doing this for the money, but for the sole purpose of meeting like-minded people in my new country.  I had one meeting with five other teachers and felt that I could easily accomplish this goal.  They were all women and were from France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and Germany!

So, this is what will inspire me to get up at this uncivilized hour and go to this course to learn how they prefer I teach English.  Wonderful, like-minded women who are far away from home for a variety of reasons and motives all together in one room for the purpose of teaching their language to others.

When that alarm clock goes off, I will definitely need to think hard about this wonderful motivation.  I think I’m actually getting excited now.  Wish me luck!

Four Ways to Simplify Your Life

Most people don’t realize they need to simplify their life. I know I didn’t. The way I discovered it was unconventional and I’m not sure that reading it somewhere would have convinced me. However, I always like to share wisdom and if you chose to use it, good for you.

In 2007, I proposed a plan to my company to take a one-year sabbatical. My reasoning, at least to myself was because, after 22 years in corporate America, I was tired and sick. I was physically and emotionally exhausted and had recently been diagnosed with Lupus. The job that I had once loved had turned into a nightmare that I woke up to every day.

During the one-year sabbatical, I decided to move to Florence, Italy. It was a bucket list items. I wanted to live in another country and learn another language. I rented an apartment, got rid of most of my “stuff” and moved. During that year, I learned how to and the importance of simplifying your life.

1. Live in as small a place as is comfortable. This was learned purely by accident. I rented a 600 square foot apartment in Florence. There was a small bathroom, a galley kitchen, a living room and a loft bedroom. I moved there from a 1500 square foot condominium that I “downsized” to after my sons were grown and I was divorced.

After living there a while and being surprised at how comfortable I was, I realized that in my condominium, I really only used the same rooms as I had in this apartment. Additionally, I didn’t accumulate more stuff because there was nowhere to put it. It was easy to clean, heat and cool, and to furnish.

Because it was an apartment, I had no maintenance to do, no lawn to mow or garden to tend. If you like doing those things, it’s great, but if you don’t, it’s a relief not to have them.

2. Get rid of debt. This seems obvious. Many times we use credit to buy things to put in our houses, wear, eat, or entertain us. The pleasure of those things can be overshadowed by the burden and weight of the debt. Not having debt is not only liberating, it cuts down on the number of bills you have to pay each month.

3. Live somewhere “walkable”. This isn’t easy to accomplish in the United States. When I visit there, one of the most annoying things is how much time I spend in the car. I haven’t had a car in 11 years now. While living in Boston I didn’t have a car, but in most American cities and suburbs it’s just not possible.

When you live somewhere that you can walk to the store and buy eggs and milk, have a cup of coffee, pick up a newspaper, you get some exercise, meet new people, and at least cut down on gas if you do still own a car.

If you are able to get rid of the car altogether, even better. I use public transportation and when I lived in Boston made occasional use of Zipcar, which is located in many American cities. Even Uber is a nice option these days. If you live somewhere walkable the cost of public transportation on an occasional basis saves money, maintenance, registration, and parking fees.

4. Get rid of “stuff”. This seems to be one of the hardest at first, but one of the most liberating afterward. We buy and hold onto a lot of material possessions. Consumerism is definitely a big part of the American culture. This one you can do whether or not you follow my other advice and I assure you, if you do, you will feel like a bird out of a cage.

I know that many of you, after reading item number one have already said to yourself, “I could live in a smaller place, but where would I put all of my things?” Ask yourself, “What are these things, and why do I need them?” The answer is usually because you want them and then the answer to why you want them opens another can of worms.

That’s it! Four steps to simplify your life. The advantage of having a simpler life is less stress and more time and money to do the things that you really want to do. Let me know if you take my advice or if you have additional items that should be on the list. There are all kinds of help on the internet for accomplishing any of these four things.

With a simplier life ahead of you, you are free to dream countless dreams as well as make a few of them come true! Good luck!

Dreams Take You in All Directions

What direction will your dreams take you? Whatever your dreams, it seems that you never know where they will take you. You might have a plan, but your dreams have one too, I’ve discovered. One thing leads to another and another path shows you the way.

My dreams have all led me to different and wonderful places. Italy was the place I dreamed of living, and I did it. I had a wonderful life in Florence, Italy full of art, architecture, a new and warm culture, new friends, old friends who visited me, and very full and rich life.

I dreamed of finding love and I met my husband in Italy. We met on Piazza degli Uffizi one Spring evening, about this time of year. We had both come to listen to music.

My husband is Moroccan and now I am living the dream by the sea in Tangier. We celebrated our third wedding anniversary on Sunday.

I dreamed of learning another language and I am fluent in Italian and now learning French and Darija (Moroccan Arabic) in my new home.

Being a writer has always been a dream of mine.  I am the author of this blog as well as my Italian one, An American in Italy. I even wrote a book titled The Life I Imagined.

I had a successful career that helped me make my dreams come true, but the real thing that has to happen to make dreams come true is daring to dream.

I dream of traveling the world. Today I am in Istanbul celebrating my birthday and dreaming up other things to do in the future.

Dreams can be big and scary and sometimes you must face insurmountable obstacles to make them come true. It’s not always easy and it usually brings some pain to others who don’t understand or don’t support your dreams. Don’t let that stop you. Start by taking one step. Then take another and another. You can make yours happen.

Consider the words of this poem carefully and then dream big! See you next week when I get back from Turkey!

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

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