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  • Writer's pictureCamellia Phillips

Another Tale of Falling in Love with Sicily

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

The Search for Stories Like Ours

When Marco and I were contemplating buying a house in Sicily, I scoured the internet for resources and stories of others who’d made the same leap. I found a handful of articles detailing closing costs in Sicily and an old Rick Steve’s forum where a couple posted about moving to Sicily and many people responded to say: “This is a travel forum” and “Always rent in the area for a few months before you buy.”

Useful for our situation? Not particularly. But I swear I read those articles and forums dozens of times.

Still, I never found any blogs or articles or forums that reflected the emotional side of the experience—or the fact that our particular journey started with a house. Not a rental. Not a long visit. A house in a real estate market where resales can take years.

That was one of the reasons we started this blog: to write the sort of stories that might help the next person pondering taking such a giant leap.

Luckily, this blog also led me to finally meet someone with a story like ours.

Over the Sicilian Moon

We’ve connected with a surprising amount of people through this blog, which gives us a thrill every time. One of the first people to reach out was Barbara “Barbie” Palermo, an American who’d moved to Sicily a couple years before. Turns out, Barbie and her aptly named husband Ken, live in Taormina, a couple hours north of Melilli. Like Marco, Barbie’s roots are Sicilian and, like me, her husband’s roots are not. As Barbie and I chatted back and forth, I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend.

Cover of the book Over the Sicilian Moon by Barbara Palermo

Barbie shared that she’d published a book, Over the Sicilian Moon, about her experience moving from Oregon to Sicily to retire. I knew I had to read it.

Over the Sicilian Moon was the book I’d been longing for.

In it, Barbie recounts her and Ken’s journey of deciding to retire in Sicily and what it was really like working over several years to make that dream a reality. She delves into how they balanced hope, doubt, and uncertainty as they navigated the many ups and downs, setbacks, and successes along the way. And Barbie describes it all in vibrant, often humorous prose that makes you feel like you’re sitting on her patio, sipping a spritz and listening to a friend describe a riveting adventure full of twists and turns.

All to say, I cannot recommend Over the Sicilian Moon enough. When Barbie asked if I’d consider proofreading her second book, Retired in Sicily, I jumped at the opportunity. And yes, Barbie’s second book is as great as her first.

Since one goal of this blog is to create the kind of resources and stories Marco and I wish we’d found, I naturally asked Barbie if I could interview her. I was thrilled when she accepted.

A Conversation with Author Barbara “Barbie” Palermo

Camellia: I fell in love with your first book, Over the Sicilian Moon, from the first paragraph. I encourage any aspiring expat to check it out. I wish I'd found it sooner!

Over the Sicilian Moon starts when your move to Sicily is just a dream, providing an insider’s look to the process of gaining Italian citizenship by both ancestry (you) and marriage (your husband), visiting Sicily and buying a house, meeting long-lost family, and spending several years preparing for the final move to live in Sicily full-time. I'm curious to know when you first started writing that book. Was it while you were in the middle of preparing or once you'd finally arrived in Sicily?

Barbie: First, thank you for loving my book! I honestly can’t remember exactly when I began writing Over the Sicilian Moon, but I know it was at some point during that five-year countdown period to move abroad. It was probably when trying to close the deal on the house we were purchasing or perhaps the endless wait for Ken’s citizenship to be approved. We were hitting so many unbelievable obstacles, that writing about them was my way of venting, I suppose. It really began as just a journal, not an actual book.

Barbara and Ken sitting at a restaurant, happily retired in Sicily

I became serious about turning it into a book during the first Covid-19 lockdown, just after we sold our house and were stuck in limbo living in a friend’s guesthouse on their Oregon farm, waiting for the green light to travel to Italy. Being on someone else’s property (having already sold our home), with nothing more than a suitcase and little to occupy our time, I took up writing and oil painting! We lived on that farm for three months and during that time the book materialized but I didn’t want to finish it until we had moved to Sicily and finally realized our dream.

Camellia: Over the Sicilian Moon has connected with many readers. On Amazon, reader reviews have called it “a page turner,” “an incredible journey,” and “great armchair travel.” Obviously, I agree! What are some of the common comments from readers that have stuck with you?

Barbie: Fortunately, most of the comments were from people like you who found the book helpful and inspiring. Several of my readers actually reached out to me by email for further advice and a handful even visited us here in Sicily. This is exactly what I intended the book to do, which made me very happy.

However, there were some comments that surprised me. A few hateful words and accusations of dissing America or its politics. I tried very hard to keep politics to a minimum, but they played a role on our decision to move abroad and, as part of my story, deserved to be included. I kept it at a minimum, maybe two or three sentences, but that was still enough to set some people off. As a result, in my second book, Retired in Sicily, I found myself hesitating to compare the healthcare systems between the two countries, or to tell the story of something funny that happened at the butcher shop, worrying I might offend someone who is vegan, for example. Ultimately, I decided to take my chances and wrote what I wanted.

Retired in Sicily

Camellia: You just released your second book, Retired in Sicily, last week—congratulations! A sequel to your first book, Retired in Sicily takes us through the first two years of your retired life in Sicily. Though you're not 100% retired because you run a Sicilian farm stay Airbnb (which I cannot wait to visit). What drove you to write this second book?

Cover image of Barbara Palermo's second book, Retired in Sicily

Barbie: Oddly, I had no intention of ever writing another book. I figured it would take us three months to settle in and after that, there wouldn’t be anything interesting to write about. Clearly, I was mistaken! Our silly adventures continued, so much so, that I was compelled to jot them down as they occurred. Initially, Retired in Sicily was to cover our first year abroad, but since things take so long to play out here and I didn’t want to keep my readers hanging in the balance, I kept writing until most of our pursuits had concluded. The book now covers our first two years of living in Sicily, from July 2020 to July 2022.

Camellia: While maintaining your trademark humor and down-to-earth frankness, this second book takes a deeper look at what's both wonderful and difficult about living in Sicily versus just dreaming, visiting, and preparing for the big move. What were some of the most fun and challenging experiences to write about?

Barbie: The most fun parts to write about were the fun things that happened, like befriending other expats, exploring the island, attending festivals, hosting international guests and so forth, but the one event that I enjoyed writing about the most was the day Lollo, our baby donkey, was born.

Barbara and Ken with their two donkeys on their Sicilian farmstay

The more challenging things to write about were the problems we encountered that took so darn long to resolve, like completing the solar energy system, battling the infamous bureaucracy, and earning an Italian driver’s license, to name a few. Writing about the wildfire that nearly destroyed our farm was like re-living the nightmare and I couldn’t do it without tearing up. But once I figured out a way to put a humorous spin on those stories, and realized they all had a happy outcome, those too became a joy to write about.

Camellia: Marco and I are both writers, so we're always talking about our writing process—and chatting with other folks about theirs. Can you tell me about your writing process? For example, do you write every day, do you ever get stuck, do you have any writerly routines and habits? For me, I cannot write in a chair to save my life. I sit on a yoga cushion on the floor (and no, I don't do yoga, I only sit on the cushions). So, tell me about your creative quirks!

Barbie: Truthfully, I’m a very unorganized and messy writer. My “process,” if you can call it that, is to jot down thoughts on whatever piece of paper is handy, like a post-it note or the back of a grocery list, which results in illegible scribbles or notes that get lost, (i.e.; left in the grocery store basket). I try to write down the basics, who/what/where/when/why, as they occur, or shortly thereafter, so as not to forget.

Later, when the mood strikes, I struggle to decipher what I wrote on the piles of crinkled, ripped, or wine-stained pieces of paper and type them up in some organized fashion on my laptop. The last phase, before editing, is to expand each story, add humor if possible, and try to make the story flow so it doesn’t sound choppy.

Sometimes a week or two passes without writing a word. Instead of forcing myself to work on a paragraph for an hour, ending up with something I’m not pleased with, I’ve learned to wait until I’m feeling creative. Unfortunately, the mood often strikes in the middle of the night or when I’m in the shower. More than once I’ve left a trail of water on the floor trying to reach for a note pad or tiptoed around the house hoping not to wake Ken, guests, and/or the dogs.

What’s Next: Pondering the Future

Camellia: Occasionally, Marco and I dream about running a writers retreat in Sicily (which is kind of like a bed and breakfast but only for writers). Many of your stories involve your farm stay Airbnb, Arches of Alcantara, and all the adorable animals and wonderful orchards and gardens. What has it been like to run the farm stay—and what advice would you give us, or anyone else interested in doing so?

Image of the Barbara Palermo's home at her Sicilian farm, framed through the arches of the ancient acqueduct

Barbie: Hosting guests from all over the world has proven to be incredibly rewarding and educational, more than I ever expected. This says a lot, given the fact that I’m an introvert. We’ve hosted all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds through Airbnb in the summer months and through the WorkAway program in the wintertime.

As a result, we literally have friends throughout Europe who we look forward to visiting on future vacations. Cultural exchanges are not only fun, but vital to humankind, so I would encourage anyone thinking of hosting others to do it. Granted, some people will think you’re crazy for sharing your home with strangers, but then they already think we’re crazy for living in Sicily!

Camellia: The question I'm personally itching to hear an answer to: Are you thinking of writing a third book?

Barbie: Funny you should ask . . . frankly, it depends on how well my second book does. My first book has done surprisingly well and if my second book follows suit, then I would consider a third. I’ve already begun jotting down notes, just in case, but this time using an app called “Keep Notes” instead of leaving pieces of paper all over the house, which drives my husband nuts. It also depends on what happens in the future and if it’s worth writing about.

Since finalizing Retired in Sicily I’ve already documented receiving our fourth vaccination and obtaining our voting card (for a big election is coming up in September). Of course, there will be more interesting guests to write about in the coming years, and all the trips we’re planning to explore Europe, our new continent. But what on earth would I call this new book: Still Retired in Sicily and Still Loving It?!

Ready to Learn More?

You can find both of Barbie's books on Amazon: Over the Sicilian Moon is here and Retired in Sicily is here. And to learn more about Barbie and Ken's farm stay, click here!

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