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A Family’s Year in Italy: On the Road with Jacqueline Jannotta

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Getting the gumption to make travel part of your life is hard enough when it’s just you, let alone adding three other people. Jacqueline Jannotta did just that, though—she brought her husband and kids into a year-long adventure. Here’s how this family of four did it:

Tell us about yourself.

I worked for both sitcoms and dotcoms in Chicago, L.A. and Florida before becoming a freelance writer and moving to Portland, Oregon. I’ve always cherished the connections I made as I zig-zagged around the country, and have been curious about the ever growing social constellations we find ourselves in. This ultimately became the impetus for an unforgettable journey: moving my family of four to live in Genoa, Italy for a year.

What inspired you to take your family abroad?

Three things:

  1. Ever since I heard stories of Italy from my grandparents as a little girl, I’ve felt the calling to see the country. I hungered to have a deeper relationship with the Italian culture, so it wouldn’t simply be mythologized in my mind.
  2. I wanted my kids to be global citizens: to speak another language, be immersed in another culture, and know there are different ways of living.
  3. While dancing near “mid-life” my husband and I had a vision of taking a sabbatical: a year “off” of the prescribed life to figure out how we might re-direct our energies in a more fulfilling, productive, and give-back kind of way.

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How did you pay for your adventure?  

We saved for years before we left. Once in Italy, we rented our Portland home out, did a little work, accepted the kindness of gracious hosts along the way, were very thrifty, and used Frequent Flyer miles we’d accumulated over years of business and regular travel.

How many miles did you use while traveling Europe? Do you have a favorite card?

As there are four of us, it was tricky to combine and book. We used about 250,000 miles during our year away, which we earned from many rounds of credit card sign-ups, promotions, travel, and spending. We’re fans of Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

What was different initially about living abroad versus passing through?

Diving into a foreign culture for an extended period is like jumping off a cliff, down through a wormhole filled with twists and turns and floating debris, only to land in a place where your blood is nearly drained yet you feel more alive than ever.

For example, my daughters and I traveled from Naples on a somewhat rickety train up the Ligurian Coast, with the tracks lain through hollowed-out mountains. Long stretches in dark tunnels were punctuated by bursts of the glistening sapphire Mediterranean sea. Those flashes would barely register before we were pulled through the next dark tunnel. And we were in backward facing seats. It was disorienting (to say the least). Once we arrived, we realized we’d emerged into a place all at once striking, new, and thrilling.

Even the thick haze from the cigarette smoke in the terminal added to the dream-like experience. Like a newborn, our senses immediately began taking in every tiny detail as we oriented to our new home city for the year. This sensation continued for several weeks, with all neurons firing to map out our new reality.

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Can you describe what that process felt like?

Going on a more permanent trip meant that when I arrived, all my senses kicked in to help me adjust. I strangely felt like I had an added 6th sense that leapt into action, guiding all the other senses. I often felt like I had “psychic radar” that knew exactly where to take my feet in the big maze of an unfamiliar city, exactly to whomever would be able to help us.

We had so many eerie moments of finding just the right person at the right moment: at times it was as though some über Rod Serling had created a modern-medieval amusement park exclusively for our benefit.

Did anything surprise you as you adjusted?

We did many side trips to hill towns and coastal villages, and after a while the aesthetic tended to sink in: it was always beautiful, but the beauty and the patina become more a part of the background scenery. One church started to feel like the next one, and – not to sound jaded – but the “wow factor” dissipated.

Getting our legal resident cards in Genoa.

Were you able to shake off taking your travel for granted? If so, how?

My family got what I call a “click our heels three times” moment in the middle of our trip, which changed how we saw Italy. After touring Pompeii, we went to visit my brother at a U.S. Naval Support Base in southern Italy. The base was designed to look like a generic town in a nondescript part of the U.S. (complete with a high school football field, U.S. Post Office, and an ever-buzzing shopping mall).

The shock of familiarity jolted us back into our present moment. It gave us a fresh perspective and a boost of gratitude for everything we were experiencing in Italy – culinary and otherwise – despite our occasional hardship and homesickness.

Tell us about a time your American culture collided with the Europeans.

During our last month abroad, we took a road trip and wound up at the Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands. In this open air primate zoo, hundreds of monkeys roam free. They hopped onto strollers, darted across pathways, and crept close to stare at us, their “more evolved” cousins, as we marveled back at them.

The whole park was charged with an incredibly wild, yet oddly peaceful energy. And the words that kept popping into my mind? Lawsuit. Waiting. To. Happen. Never in a million years would it be allowed in America. Yet here we were, safe and in awe.

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The great debate: aisle or window?

My kids say window, so my husband and I concede and take the aisle.

Tell us about a memorable moment during your stay.  

After we’d been in Italy for awhile, friends from Portland came to visit us. We all went to Lucca, a small city in Tuscany, and spent the late morning riding bicycles atop the famous fortress walls which encircle the town. After the first of many complete trips around the city, a hypnotic feeling settled in. That delightful “state of being” represented my knowing that I belonged in Italy, was commanding the language, even successfully guiding my friends who had just arrived. I was more than a tourist.

Side note: It was tempting to write about my moment with an almond granita in Sicily (it was so delicious we immediately returned for a second one).

Best travel tips. Go!

1. Lower your travel ambitions.

This is important with kids. While you may have the patience and curiosity to learn about the historic ramifications of slavery in ancient Rome, to your kids it’s a big yawn. Overly high ambitions easily lead to meltdowns, frustrations and whining that can spiral out of control, which no amount of wine in Europe can offset. Pick one big site for the day, and only add a second if there are enticing treats to bribe your kids with.

Actual bribing of children in action.

2. Get a mobile phone that works abroad.

Having a smartphone that works abroad allows you to keep in touch with friends and family, use maps, and get traveler information from simple apps like TripAdvisor. While not perfect, they can offer instant access to a wealth of information, and are helpful when you need something “kid-friendly.”

What did we miss?

I am reminded of a saying that goes, “If you want to learn about other people, look inside yourself. If you want to learn about yourself, study other people.” Those kinds of paradoxical statements and questions hold a deep truth and fascinate me. Constantly exploring, reconciling and even embodying both an American version of myself while living an Italian version of me is the essence of what helps to redefine my life experience.

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Where are you all headed next?

We’re returning to Europe this summer (using miles – yay!), including a stay in Genoa to help cement our connection to the city and our new friends there.

Read about Jacqueline’s journey at Giorni a Genova.

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