Moving abroad, particularly when the destination is a long way from home, can be a daunting prospect. It can also be a way for families to achieve their dream of an inspiring new lifestyle set in a different culture.
For Dawn Cavanagh-Hobbs and her husband Michael Hobbs, Italy’s Le Marche region represented everything they were looking to gain from an overseas move. Dawn and her family lived in Duxbury, MA, on the South Shore approximately 35 miles south of Boston. They arrived in Massachusetts in 1994, with three young children and a fourth on the way. Michael was working for Laura Ashley at the time and Dawn, as well as looking after their young family, worked part-time as an interior designer.
After three years in Boston, the family moved to England, as Michael had been head-hunted for a role there by the Sears group. They remained in England for several years before moving to Italy in 2007. Their son Sebastian and daughter India, along with India’s fiancé Charlie, went with them. Eldest son Tom was settled with his job in the UK and chose to remain there, as did daughter Camilla who was happy at her boarding school – although she looked forward to spending her school holidays in Italy.
Dawn, Michael and Sebastian – who has just completed his studies in Florence – live in the quiet town of Petritoli, with India and Charlie, along with their five-year-old son Lucas, just around the corner. Escape from America spoke to Dawn about what it was that motivated her to leave behind everything that was familiar and head off into the unknown for a new life.
Why did you choose Italy?
I fell in love with Italy the moment we first arrived here. The Italian culture, family values and way of life have always appealed to me, and as an interior designer Italy’s reputation for style and iconic fashion was also a major attraction. But Italy has so much more to offer – the food and wine are outstanding and the scenery in our part of the country is just incredible. Living in Le Marche is perfect. We are only minutes from the Adriatic Sea with its myriad sandy beaches, while in the distance we have views of the stunning Sibillini Mountains.
We chose Le Marche as we were looking for the ‘real Italy’ – not somewhere where we would find ourselves constantly bumping into tourists or other ex-pats. We wanted a peaceful, rural life surrounded by rolling hills, with vineyards and olive groves stretching into the distance as far as the eye could see. It seemed like a rather idyllic dream when we first began discussing it, but in Le Marche that is exactly what we found. There is just something in the air here. Maybe it’s the combination of the sea and mountain breezes, or the scent of the lavender swaying gently under the sun. Whatever it is, it is simply intoxicating. We’ve travelled all over the world and lived in various places, but since moving to Italy we simply can’t imagine living anywhere else.
What did you do before moving?
My husband headed up Adams Childrenswear in the UK for a number of years, as well as holding chairmanships at several other companies. I worked as an interior designer and between us we also bought and renovated houses. Our careers were demanding and life was enjoyable but hectic. We yearned for a more peaceful lifestyle, where we could enjoy spending time outdoors with our family.
We still have business links with England and Michael has remained as the chairman of a specialist search company for the retail sector. We go back periodically both for work and to spend time with our family and friends, but Italy is where our hearts are firmly rooted now.
What do you do in Italy?
We moved to Italy with a plan to buy, renovate and sell houses, as we had done in the UK. However, our plans quickly changed. We spoke to a number of holiday home owners about their frustrations with having a second home abroad. Instead of spending their holidays relaxing in the sunshine, they spent the majority of their time in Italy working on their houses and gardens, which sat empty for long periods of time while not in use. No matter who we spoke to, their ‘holidays’ always followed a familiar pattern, beginning with a large-scale clean of the house, and followed by trying to find the garden from beneath the jungle that it has become.
That was when we hit on the idea of fractional ownership, where families share ownership of the property and each use it exclusively for a set number of weeks per year. We bought the run-down Estate Giacomo Leopardi near the hilltop village of Montefiore dell’Aso in Le Marche. When we purchased it, the estate consisted of five acres of land – mostly dead vines and out-of-control olive trees – and a cluster of ramshackle farm buildings. As soon as I saw it I knew we had found something special. I could see beyond the weeds, the broken windows and the crumbling walls, and I knew it was the place for us.
Michael quickly understood my vision for the estate, as did India and Charlie. We set up our family-run company, Appassionata (www.appassionata.com), and immediately got to work. The plan was to create two houses on the land, using as much of the existing buildings and materials as possible in order to retain their original character. The scale of the project was massive and our limited knowledge of Italian did create some initial barriers, but everyone we worked with was so friendly that we got things moving along quickly.
Casa Giacomo was the first house to be finished. It’s a four bedroom/three bathroom property that provides a quintessentially Italian space for comfortable living and entertaining. Split over two floors, the property features a combination of traditional building methods and modern amenities. We worked with local artisans to make bespoke pieces such as light fittings and stair rails, and I scoured Italy’s antique markets for authentic, unique touches to add to the design.
We worked on the estate’s grounds as well, replanting the vineyard and toiling for seemingly endless months to turn the sloping farmland into gardens, rockeries, terraces, swimming pools, a tennis court, olive groves, a lavender plantation and a truffle orchard.
Next we finished Casa Leopardi, which at 420m2 and laid out over three floors is just over twice the size of Casa Giacomo. It has five bedrooms and five bathrooms, along with its own private swimming pool. We kept up our emphasis on high quality interior design and luxury furnishings, as we want our owners to enjoy every moment of their time here.
We kept the outer walls of this property and were able to reuse most of the original terracotta roof and floor tiles, bricks and lots of lovely old pieces of wood. We weren’t able to save the original windows, but I managed to find a joiner who copied the original window and shutter. I have stored all the original ones and plan to make some cupboards out of them – I love to recycle and never throw anything away! We managed to raise the roof to create more head height on the third floor. The rooms up there have the best views in the whole house, over the gently undulating hills, down to the sea and across to the mountains.
With both properties we have maximised the use of outdoor space, creating pretty terraces surrounded by flowers, which are perfect for outdoor dining. We wanted our owners to enjoy the Italian sunshine and outdoor lifestyle as much as we do, so we designed every aspect of the houses with that firmly in mind.
How welcomed did you feel when you first arrived in Italy?
We spoke very little Italian when we arrived and didn’t know anyone in the area, so we did have a few last-minute nerves about our Italian adventure! Our son Sebastian was particularly nervous – he was fourteen at the time we moved and due to attend an Italian school where the teachers spoke no English.
Our worries evaporated when we arrived. The locals were so friendly and helpful and we will always be grateful for their early kindness in helping us to settle in and bearing with our clumsy attempts at communication. My efforts to buy antiques or to describe how I envisaged the shape of a particular lampshade I wanted designed for the house were often tricky, but with a combination of my terrible Italian, drawing pictures and waving my arms I somehow always managed to be understood, and the local artisans I worked with were extremely gracious in their attempts to understand me!
Sebastian’s teachers were wonderful. Although they didn’t speak English they went out of their way to make him feel welcome and to provide him with extra support. Five years later, he speaks fluent Italian and has just finished studying in Florence.
What advice would you give to others who are looking to share in the dream Italian lifestyle?
Think carefully about what it is you are looking for. If you are looking to Italy as the place for your second home then consider the advantages of fractional ownership before committing to buy a place outright. With fractional ownership your property and grounds are managed and cared for throughout the year, meaning you can relax as soon as you arrive.
Fractional ownership also means you can buy a much more luxurious property than if you are buying outright. Shares in Casa Leopardi are £185,000, for which our owners get exclusive use of the house for five weeks every year, as well as a share in the produce from the estate’s vineyard, olive groves, lavender plantation and truffle orchard. Not bad for a five bedroom/five bathroom property!
For anyone considering a permanent move to Italy, I would recommend committing some serious time to learning Italian before you get here, particularly if you are planning on living in a remote area. Every extra word you learn will make your life a little bit easier when you arrive.
Renting a property for a while before you commit to buying somewhere is also a good idea, as it gives you time to get a feel for an area and know if it is definitely the right place for you. If after six months of life in the countryside you find yourself craving the lights and noise of the city, then you can simply move on and rent somewhere new, rather than having to wait to sell.
I would also recommend a giant dose of patience and humour for anyone moving overseas – life will not always be what you expected and certain cultural aspects of your new country may seem strange at first, but life abroad will certainly be full of excitement, surprises and new experiences, whichever country you choose.