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  • Writer's pictureCamellia Phillips

One-Way Ticket to Sicily

As I write this, it is February 2024, just over three months since we arrived on our one-way ticket to Sicily. Usually, on our previous three-month stays, this is when we would be packing our bags. We'd be preparing the house for our absence, saying goodbye to friends and cugini (cousins) and Ziu Angelo.

But we are not doing any of those things.

Instead, we just finished enrollment in the national health system. We successfully organized paperwork for my appointment to get my "permesso di soggiorno" (sort of like a green card). The work on our exterior is complete.

In a way, it feels like our life in Sicily is beginning now, right in this moment, rather than when our one-way flight landed three months ago.

We're used to living in Sicily in three-month stints. So everything from here on out will be brand new. We'll see seasons change. We'll learn what fruits and vegetables are in season in early spring.

But before we do all that, I wanted to take a moment to look back at the last twelve months that brought us here.

The past year has been much more ambitious, emotional, and exhausting than I ever expected. So, for those also thinking about moving abroad, I figured it was worth documenting our experience.

Moving to Sicily: A Scheduling Jigsaw Puzzle

We made the decision to move to Sicily full-time at the end of January 2023, one year ago. It was a difficult period for us, as Marco's father had just died. But this loss also inspired us to take the leap and change our lives.

Because we were already doing the "Schengen shuffle," we decided to keep that schedule for the rest of 2023, to give us time to prepare for living abroad. When you do the Schengen shuffle, you spend 90 days in the Schengen Zone (which includes Italy), and 90 days outside of Schengen Zone countries (for example, post-Brexit UK and the United States). This schedule means you don't have to worry about residency, immigration paperwork, visas, or tax changes.

We were scheduled to spend February, March, and April back in NYC, so we used that time to pack for our move and prepare to rent out our apartment.

At the start of May, we headed back to Melilli for the annual Saint Sebastian Festival. We stayed here through late July. We spent those months unpacking, finding a muratore (a mason) to repair and redo our facade in the fall, and figuring out what else we would need for comfortable year-round living (such as a pellet stove and new mini splits).

We also used these months to book our one-way ticket back to Italy (for early November 2023) and plan our final three-month stay in the US.

Leaving Family and Friends in the US

For most of my adult life, I have lived across the country from my family. I kicked off my long-distance living at age eighteen when I worked as an au pair in Madrid, Spain.

But Marco and I aren't wide-eyed young adults leaving our little towns for the big city anymore. We know that being far from family and the incredible friends who have become family can be tough.

Together, we've lived through the pandemic and a couple years of cautious quarantine. We've lost people close to us, including both of Marco's parents in less than a year, and know just how painful these losses can be. I had hip surgery and a long recovery that made walking more than a few blocks impossible for many months.

Plus, we have decided that we aren't planning to visit the US anytime soon (except for emergencies or special opportunities). Frankly, we're exhausted from traveling and want to give ourselves a chance to fully settle into our lives in Melilli.

So our final three months of travel in August, September, and October, would be our chance to visit people. To give them all big hugs.

As I shared in a recent blog for Chronic Pain Warriors, the pandemic taught me so many new and creative ways to stay connected with friends and family. But even so, it will be a while before I'll get to hug my parents, sister, best friend, and nieces in the US again. So we wanted to make sure we got the chance to do it.

This was our inspiration for what we started calling the "Tour di Ciao Famiglia."

The Tour di Ciao Famiglia

The "Tour di Ciao Famiglia" was intended as an epic journey traversing the UK and US to visit family and friends, many of whom we hadn't seen since pre-pandemic times. We figured the moniker was appropriate since ciao is used here for both hello and goodbye.

Ciao! Hello, it's great to see you and we love you! Ciao! Goodbye (until you buy your tickets to visit us), because we're exhausted from traveling! 

In addition to family, we also had a few other move-related must-do projects on our list:

  • Vacate our Brooklyn apartment. We needed to clear out any last belongings and MOVE OUT ASAP! We had found incredible tenants and they wanted to move in as soon as possible. So, while we had planned to spend all of August in Brooklyn, at the last minute we decided to only stay there for ten days and head out to Washington State sooner.

  • Gather all the paperwork we would need for Italian residency. For Marco, as a dual citizen, that meant preparing to get his name corrected in the Italian database because the NYC consulate made a clerical error over 20 years ago (for real!). And for me, that meant gathering everything we would need for my permesso di soggiorno application. I scoured resources online to find all the potential documents we might need and how to "legalize" them for international use. I'll describe all these processes in detail in a future post because the process in real life was, of course, different than described online!

  • Gather a six- to nine-month supply of my prescription medications. This one is unique to living with chronic illness. Basically, things like officially getting your permesso and getting on the Italian health system can take 2-3 months or it can take 10-12 months. There is no way to know until you are in the middle of it. So we wanted to be prepared for the process to last up to nine months or more, without causing treatment interruption for me.

  • Stock up on stuff we can't easily get in Italy. This is hilarious, but things like "mixed berry Tums" are NOT a thing in Italy. We also have favorite sheets, favorite hand sanitizer, and other random things we use every day that we wanted to have a supply of.

With all of this in mind, we created an intensive, carefully planned schedule for the "Tour di Ciao Famiglia." We would spend:

  • A week visiting Marco's brother, sister-in-law, and niece in Brighton, UK.

  • 10 days in NYC with a small interruption of...

  • A long weekend in Middletown, CT, visiting Marco's aunts and cousins.

  • Almost two months living off-grid in the woods in Washington State where we would spend a couple of weeks with my parents and make visits to long-time friends and family out west.

  • A month in Golden, Colorado, visiting my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and adorable nieces and some of Marco's old friends who live nearby.

  • Two days in NYC on the way from Denver to Sicily, so I could see my best friend Jo and her adorable daughter (I am Aunt Camellia!), and so we could pick up my medications.

Tiring, perhaps, but a grand adventure nonetheless. Of course, the adventure started out with a few hiccups...

Unexpected Trip to Malta!

Shortly before we were set to leave Melilli on the first leg of our "Ciao Famiglia" tour, there was a major fire at the Catania airport. Nearly all flights were canceled or diverted for days, then weeks. As our scheduled flight, at the end of July, approached, we were pretty sure it would be canceled. So while we waited, we made a backup plan.

Then, days before our planned departure, massive wildfires ravaged the land around Melilli. Smoke choked the air. People watched their farmlands burn from a distance. Firefighting planes and helicopters swooped in to dump massive amounts of water.

Picture of a narrow, hillside street in Malta with people sitting at a table chatting.
A street in Malta.

It felt wrong to leave our home here. The uncertainty of our travel plans only added to that feeling. We were certain our flight would be canceled at any moment. But the airline waited until late the night before our flight (scheduled for mid-morning) to send the cancellation notice.

We promptly put our backup plan into motion.

Instead of leaving from Catania, we would get a car to Pozzallo and take the ferry to Malta. We'd then fly out of Malta the next day and land in the UK only 24 hours later than planned.

That was how we ended up visiting three countries in 24 hours.

Luckily, we had most of the morning in Valletta, Malta, before our flight. We took the opportunity to explore. It was incredible!!! I felt like I was walking around inside an ancient swashbuckling adventure.

Now, a longer visit to Malta is on our must-do list.

A Visit to The Shire

Over New Year's, Marco and I watched a marathon of all The Lord of the Rings movies (extended editions) over two days. All to say, we are both big Tolkien fans. So visiting the UK is a real treat.

Picture of a small rustic stone church on a pastoral hillside.

We stayed with Marco's brother and his family in Brighton. Though it was late July, the weather was appropriately soggy some of the time! Carmelo, his wife Mandy, and daughter, Isabella, toured us around the area. One especially memorable adventure was visiting a cute little village and wandering the countryside through public footpaths.

Unlike our other visits, this one was more about saying hello, since we'll be living closer to the UK and hope to see Carmelo, Mandy, and Isabella more!

Middletown and the Story of the Gold in the Walls

During our 10-day pitstop to finish prepping our Brooklyn apartment, we headed to Connecticut for three days to visit Marco's aunts and cousins in Middletown.

For me, there were two standout moments I won't forget anytime soon.

First, during a lovely lunch downtown, Marco's cousin Julia told a story she'd heard from her mom. According to legend, there was once a woman in Melilli who had dreams about gold being buried in one of her walls. She had some muratori (masonry workers) at her house doing work and told them not to touch the wall from her dreams. She leaves the house only to return to find the wall she told the men not to touch torn open and the workers nowhere to be found. They had absconded with the gold!

This story captured my imagination because it is totally possible based on what we have experienced with the walls in our house.

Our walls here are like archaeological sites. Sometimes two feet thick or more, the walls are made of old stone, concrete, bricks, and random bits of who knows what thrown into the soup. During some recent work, we found a SEA SHELL in one of our walls! Hiding a fortune of gold in the walls here is absolutely possible. And I'm saving the rest of the story for myself (and perhaps a future mystery novel!).

The second moment in Middletown that I loved was going to Denny's with Marco's cousin Sebastian Rafala and his sister. While there, we ran into more cugini (cousins) and it reminded me so much of life in Melilli! That moment, more than anything, helped me understand why Middletown was also called Little Melilli.

Spiders, Wood Stoves, and Living Off-Grid on Lopez Island

On August 10, we boarded a plane to Seattle, Washington. Then, the next day, we got on a local shuttle to the ferry to Lopez Island where my family has a little cabin in the woods.

Picture of a ferry boat on the puget sound with a snow-capped mountain in the distance.
The perfect shot of the San Juan Islands ferry.

Now, when people say "cabin" they can mean a lot of different things. As a kid, I remember hearing someone refer to a three-bedroom rustic house on the water as a "cabin."

That is NOT the kind of cabin I am talking about.

Back in 1979, when my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad lived in a little trailer in the woods on Lopez Island. They were building a house there, on some land they'd bought together. The San Juan Islands had captured my dad's imagination years before, so setting up a life there was a big dream.

Fast-forward, my parents ended up selling the house they built and moving off-island. But they still kept a little piece of wooded land and that old-time trailer. Growing up on the mainland, my dad used to excitedly get the family in the car to go spend a weekend on Lopez in the trailer in the woods.

Now, take a moment to imagine. Here is a trailer from the 1970s. It is parked in a dense woodland area. It does not have electricity or water hookups. Most of the year, it's unoccupied...except by tons of giant spiders!!

Later, a tree fell on the trailer, inspiring my dad to make some improvements. Then, he and his pal built a single-room cabin attached to the side of our 1970s trailer.

Selfie of the author in a heavily-wooded area, with a narrow path.
Hiking through the woods to turn on the solar system.

There is still no running water, but there is a wood stove for heat, a propane-powered hotplate in an outdoor kitchen, and a bank of solar panels that provide power. This past summer, my mom added a 5G wifi hotspot.

The cabin is one of my favorite all-time places. It's rustic and crusty and yet very functional. It might sound strange, but it reminds me a lot of life in Sicily.

When you are living in the cabin, you cannot help but be in touch with nature (including spiders). You know when the sun rises and when it sets. You keep an eye on whether it's cloudy or stormy too many days in a row, so you know when to conserve power. You count your water jugs and plan trips to the store to refill them.

Like Sicily, life on Lopez is also slower. The island is actually nicknamed "Slopez."

Image of a frog peeking its head out of a white porcelain wash basin.
Our friendly "sink frog."

Over a decade ago, I spent three months living by myself out in the cabin. Marco and I have visited the cabin in both summer and winter. So we figured what better place to spend a couple of months than out there?

Of course, even on Slopez, life finds you. Last year, we published an interview about an awesome American couple, Barbie and Ken, who had retired in Sicily. Heartbreakingly, this past September, Ken died unexpectedly from a previously undiagnosed illness. Marco and I were out on Lopez when we heard the news from Barbie.

It seems like there is never enough time. Barbie and Ken only got to live their retirement dream for three years together. Now, Barbie is working to find a new path and a way to start her life over again.

After that, everything felt much more bittersweet. While we were in Washington State, we made sure to visit many friends, including a dear friend I've known since those early days when my parents built a house in the woods. One thing I noticed is that a lot of people are dealing with health issues. I've been dealing with health issues for many years, so it was interesting to be able to talk about these challenges with more people. Everyone's condition and story are different, but it made me realize how much connecting with others helpsand how we should try to do more of it.

Picture of a memorial that reads: RIP 1961 - 2023, Ken Bryan Hill built this place.

While out on Lopez, we also had paperwork to do. Before leaving Sicily in July, I'd submitted requests for the various official documents we would need for our international move. Mostly marriage certificates and birth certificates. Once I got all of the originals (finally), I figured out how to send them back to the different states to get them legalized for international use with an apostille. Our virtual mailbox came in handy as I could have all the apostilled documents sent to the same place, and then have the originals overnighted to me wherever I happened to be.

Picture of the author and her husband at Shark Reef on Lopez Island, with wind-blown trees and the puget sound in the background.
Hiking Shark Reef on Lopez.

After a month-and-a-half of pastoral off-grid life in the woods, Marco and I started to get a bit antsy. We dreamed about a future where we would have steady heat if we so desired it. A future where we could easily take hot showers every day if we wanted. A future with fewer giant spiders!!!

We vowed never to take these things for granted.

As I shared in our previous post about our second anniversary as Sicilian homeowners, our time on Lopez prepared us well for the disruptions inherent in repairing our facade here in Melilli. That project involved six weeks without heat or natural light in our house! Though, thankfully, there were no giant spiders.

Enjoying Heat, Running Water, and Hot Showers in Colorado

At the start of November, it was time for the final major leg of the Tour di Ciao Famiglia.

We headed to Golden, Colorado, where we had rented a little studio for the month of October.

I'll be honest. Our month in Colorado was tough. As with our one-month stay a year before, the altitude gave me almost constant migraines. Marco and I were both emotionally unsettled, too. His father had died in January. Our friend Ken had died in September. My dad had had a health scare (that turned out to be nothing). But overall, life just felt very fragile.

Because of my migraines, we eventually gave up on going for exciting travel activities. Instead, I rested in the morning (because I woke up feeling awful most days). Then I got some client work done in the middle of the day. And then we hung out at my parents' apartment in the evenings.

A couple of times a week we got to see "the kids" as we call them: my sister's two ADORABLE daughters.

Picture of the author, her father, and her husband against the backdrop of golden hills and blue sky in Colorado.
Waiting to pick up the girls from the school bus!

The migraines really wore me down though. But we all finally realized that even if I like Colorado, the state does not like me. For future family visits, we'll be heading to lower altitude places, like Lopez or Sicily!!!

Spending that time in Colorado on this visit made me realize, maybe for the first time, what the tradeoffs of living far from family are. Even though I moved across the US at age 21, leaving my family at that age was very different than it is now. Today, I know so much more acutely that time is finite. But I also know how rare it is to be able to have big dreams and follow them.

Last Stop: Halloween in Park Slope, Brooklyn

Picture of a bag of small, multicolored stones.
At the last minute, I packed rocks!

Finally, it was time for the final stop on the Tour di Ciao Famiglia: two nights in Brooklyn, NY. It was a last chance to see my best friend and her adorable little daughter. We also needed to finish our final move prep:

  • Make sure I didn't get too sick from the change in altitude from Colorado to airplane to sea-level NYC.

  • Picking up the expensive migraine medications my best friend had been storing in her refrigerator for several months, along with a bag of other migraine meds. All told I'd be set for up to nine months without needing prescription refills.

  • Picking up the very large, stuffed-full suitcases we'd left in our Brooklyn basement with all those precious items like TUMS and our favorite brand of sheets. We'd be checking these suitcases on our two flights (from NYC to London and from London to Catania). We don't usually check bags, so having a lot of luggage felt a bit daunting.

Then, it was time to hang out and enjoy Halloween in Park Slope one last time! Because, on November 1, we'd be pulling out our one-way tickets!

Using Our One-Way Tickets

The Tour di Ciao Famiglia ended up being very fun and I'm glad we did it. But it was also exhausting!

It was wonderful to see so many loved ones. To give people hugs and plan for future reunions in Sicily or, as we tell folks, anywhere in Europe we can fly to from Catania. 

But it was also harder and more emotional than I expected.

As we got on that one-way flight, we knew exactly what and who we were leaving behind. 

Boarding that flight, we only knew part of what was ahead for our life here in Melilli. We still only know part. 

As I wrote at the start of this post, it feels like we are only now just getting started. We love our home and our community here in Melilli. There is so much more we want to do and explore. And best of all, we have the incredible luxury of time here in Sicily.

Sometimes on walks, we look out to the North and the West, at the beautiful mountains and hills in the distance. We just want to get in a car and drive. What's over the next ridge? We have no idea. But we can't wait to find out.

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2 commentaires

18 févr.

An amazing story of an amazing adventure. Loved seeing you last summer. Keep living your dream. "It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life"


18 févr.

Beautiful story of your amazing adventures! Of course, I really loved the story about running into cousins at Denny’s in Middletown…. that was a fantastic surprise for us too and Middletown really is like Melilli that way. You also truly captured the heart and essence of your journey and I thank you for that!

So many cannot live a dream and take the risks and chances as you and Marco did to fulfill their vision of the life they want to live! You have done a beautiful job with this piece! Fino a quando ci incontriamo di nuovo! Tuo cugino, Sandra

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