Jennifer Sontag moved to the Sicilian village her grandparents had lived in following her divorce.
1. When did the idea of moving to Italy first arrive for you?
I can’t remember a time in my life when I did not dream of living in Italy. Life however, had other plans for me. In my mid-40s, I found myself at a crossroads. I was suddenly divorced (literally 3 weeks from leaving, the divorce was finalized), my son had just married, and my daughter had just finished university. This was the first time the idea of moving to Italy seemed like a real possibility.
2. When did the idea turn into the actual decision to move?
July 16th, 2017. My marriage was failing, my children had launched their adult life and I was at a point in my life that I was ready for a fresh start. I was in Sintra, Portugal on vacation with my then spouse when it hit me that I had to make a change. I was 45 years old and had overcome 2 significant health scares in the previous 5 years. I looked at my life and thought, is this it? I was 45 and felt like hell. I knew it was now or never.
3. How long did it take to then move here once the decision was made?
I took an Love, Work, Eat approach to my move to Italy over 5 years. I had a lot of work to do personally and professionally before I could settle into Italy. I moved home to St. Louis (March 2017) to learn to Love myself again. I focused all my energy on rebuilding my self-esteem and health. I learned to nourish my body and soul inside and out with fresh, healthy food and daily yoga. Once I was feeling in tune with myself, it was time to Work (my personal religion). I moved to Shanghai China (August 2018) to teach business management. After 5 years away from the business world, I wanted to get back to my professional roots in business with a twist. I became a teacher. This was the perfect way for me to connect with a profession I love and excel at, while giving back to the next generation of business leaders. After 2.5 years in Shanghai, I was ready to EAT. It was time to move to Italy for the final step in my journey. I arrived in Sicily (March 2021) to apply for recognition of my Italian citizenship.
4. Can you paint a picture of how you felt about finally living here in Italy?
I’m writing from my balcony overlooking the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sitting and relaxing, overlooking the street below me and taking in the cool afternoon breeze.
The market across the street has just reopened after a mid-afternoon break for riposa, a customer approaches and starts to chat with the proprietor. They catch up while the shop is reset for the afternoon rush, chatting about the day’s activities…
Perched above, I have the perfect seat to observe and learn. Moving to Italy has taught me how to thrive, how to learn, and how to grow the life that dreams are made of.
The first months I lived in Italy were spent observing, noting sights, the sounds, the smells of life in a village. I really learned to be more present and take in my surroundings. As Covid restrictions slowly lifted over the first year, I emerged from the balcony to integrate with my neighbors and enjoy the beauty that surrounds me.
5. What do you do here in Italy, do you work/have your own business?
I own my own business in Sicily. I have been an entrepreneur since I was 10 years old when I made my first flyers to pass out in my neighborhood announcing my babysitting services. My first tax paying business came a couple years later at 19 when I opened a maternity and baby clothing boutique. I was young when I had my first child, and I was a shopper who loved style. My first business to fill a market void was launched to combat the hideous early 90s big-bow, baby doll maternity clothes that made adult women look like overgrown toddlers at a price that made my eyes water.
I had spent my time in China preparing for my citizenship recognition, I met with traditional service providers and attorneys, I scoured FB groups and subreddits for information and support. I found a hodgepodge of information, costs, discouragement, challenges and very little that was positive, supportive, and affordable. Discouraged after sending a lot of money to an attorney who could not fulfill the contract, upset by the angry responses in a well-known FB group, and unable to afford the eye-water prices of overly formal and complicated service providers, I arrived in Sicily for recognition, DIY (I don’t recommend trying this).
In Spring of 2021, 30 years after launching my maternity store, I returned to my roots to fill the citizenship assistance market gap. I opened Italian Citizenship Concierge, a female-owned, female-focused, supportive, and affordable agency to assist Italian descendants move to Italy for their citizenship recognition through the Jure Sanguinis process. This makes the move for la dolce vita smooth and easy.
6. What were your top two greatest challenges when you first moved here? How did you get over them?
1. Language. I am still learning but thank goodness for technology. I rely a lot on my high school Spanish, some Sicilian dialect I learned as a child from my grandparents and a dash of private lessons to round out my "SpItnglish". Every sentence is an adventure for my audience.
2. There hasn’t really been another big challenge. I have been very lucky to be surrounded by amazing locals who have made me a part of their family. When I wanted to move to my great-grandparents' town, it was a friend who found the apartment for me, came with me to meet the landlord and help me negotiate. When I decided to start my own business, it was my local friend who introduced me to the connections I would need from accountants, to lawyers, to local politicians.
7. What is something that has surprised you the most about what you love about living in Italy?
That I will not have to choose between healthcare and bankruptcy. As someone who has a chronic illness (Crohn’s Disease) and more than my share of medical emergencies (TBI traumatic brain injury in China), this is the first time in my life I have access to healthcare that will not bankrupt me. It still surprises me that I will not have to choose between paying a $5,000 co-pay or paying rent for the next 6 months. As a small business owner in the USA, I fell outside of the traditional healthcare system provided by employers. I was limited to high deductible, low coverage policies that might attach my arm if it fell off but was not going to keep me healthy with preventative services. In Italy, I have access to nationalized healthcare as a citizen for free. Italy is ranked by the WHO as having the #2 healthcare systems in the world. Are there challenges? Of course, my medical Italian is terrible, appointments need to be booked in advance sometimes with a wait of weeks or months for specialists, but there are always options, and the care is excellent. I spent a lifetime listening to the propaganda from politicians and pundits that nationalized healthcare was not possible, that wait times would be forever, that death panels would make decisions about who has access to this treatment or that… Having healthcare makes a world of difference for me. I love Italy for valuing its citizens' health by providing access to world class care and for allowing me, a new citizen, to also be welcomed into the system.
I also love that I can enjoy a meal at a restaurant without the staff pretending to be my new bestie for tips. I can now actually enjoy meals and chat without feeling like the friendliness of the staff is dependent on my tip. I love that Italy pays a fair wage and provides healthcare. Living with dignity is such a beautiful thing!
8. Is there anything that you would do differently here, if you had your time over?
I would have moved sooner. I regret not moving when I first had the chance when my children were still young and could have moved with me.
9. What is the strangest thing about Italian culture that you thought you would never get used to but now couldn't live without?
The lack of windows/sunlight in the house and no central air conditioning, although I do have AC in each room with wall units. I came from a place where we would run from our super cold central AC home to the auto start car with AC blasting. Gone are my cool summer days. In return I have learned to live with curtains to black out the morning sun and a fan to keep the air fresh. At bedtime however, I return to full American status and blast the little bedroom AC unit so I can sleep peacefully. The lack of windows is still strange to me. I understand the reason behind having no windows, especially on south facing walls but my goodness, I live in the most beautiful town on the sea, I would love to be able to enjoy the views from the dining table or bed but…. These tiny windows really don’t lend themselves to providing a view of my beautiful surroundings. I’ve learned to live on the terrace and balcony of my home. And a bonus? I use sweating to my advantage since it helps rid my body of toxins (aka sugar).
10. Give us a run-through of your favourite Italian day.
I’ve been lucky throughout my life to be able to work less traditional hours. Living in Sicily and working with mostly Americans helps me keep to my ideal schedule. The perfect day for me is waking up early as the sun rises over the mountains. I slip on my Birks, grab Henry (my rescue Jack Russell’s leash) and we head out for a walk along the sea. After an hour-long walk, we stop at our favorite cafe overlooking the spaiggia for a caffe and cornetto before heading home. Sometimes, I like to just linger over a newspaper, but more than anything, I really like to soak in what is happening around me. The sea, the sounds of the waves, the glistening sand. I sometimes have to pinch myself that this is the place I get to call home. Once I get home, I prepare for the day. Check emails, do a few household chores and then settle in for a few hours of morning work: sometimes this is as simple as returning emails and working on our website. Some days it’s a mad dash to pick up a client for an appointment with the anigrafe or questura. After a morning of work and pre-lunch, I like to take a swim at the sea. Lunch is always local and simple (this way I get to sneak in a nap before getting back to work for the afternoon.) I like to wrap up my work by 8ish. This gives me time to take a stroll in the piazza and lungomare with Henry, meet up with friends for a drink or dinner. My day wraps up with a daily gelato (keeps me happy and healthy) and reading before bed. My average day might not sound that exciting to the naked eye, but it’s what makes me happiest and that’s what matters.
Keeping to this schedule from Monday - Thursday allows for 3-day weekends for exploring Sicily. This past weekend 3 friends joined me for a girls only weekend in Catania, the weekend before I took 3 day trips: Trapani, San Vito and Palermo. When I can squeeze in a few extra days, I head to Spain or northern Italy to visit friends.