During our search for the perfect property, we had also decided that we wanted a small business along with it. Something that really excited us and fit into the things we loved! Something that we could share with others so that they could experience the Italian countryside that we were growing to love so much! Why, you might ask? Why not just “retire” and enjoy a house in Italy that you’ve worked so hard for? Well, I think this can be answered by simply saying, we just aren’t done yet. We have a desire to continue to work in something that is fulfilling and sharing it with others and in some way give back to the community that we have grown to love so much.
So who exactly are we? Well, Tony is a “wine guy”, spending some time studying all aspects of wine and working for a small, primarily Italian, wine importer. Not a bad guy to have around the house! He has hosted countless wine tastings, catered in home wine dinners, teaching people the basics of wine, selling to restaurants and wine bars and shops and building fun friendships along the way. As for me, I decided to head back to school in my 40’s and get my culinary degree. It was one of the most fun things I have ever experienced. Then, I decided to go back and study extra time in pastry art as well! I was fortunate enough to work straight out of culinary school for a very well loved Italian restaurant in downtown Cincinnati as the pastry chef. I was thrilled to be in the kitchen, and learning even more and on a much larger scale! I found it exhilarating to be so crazy busy working to fill the restaurant and special events with desserts in the hundreds at times. The executive chef and owner is from Florence, and I enjoyed learning so much from him. Watching the way his grandmother’s bolognese was made, learning the authentic ways of handmade pasta, and the culture of the restaurant kitchen! I absolutely cherish and appreciate every minute of my time there.
Our search for the “perfect” situation for us in Italy, took many turns. In 2015, a unique opportunity presented itself. They say timing is everything, and we thought our search was over. Remember when I said that some people along our journey didn’t have our best interests at heart? Well, this is where that part of the story comes in. Let me start out by saying that while we debated whether to even put this out there, we decided that this is our story. And, as a part of our story, it needs to be told and maybe, in some small way, it might help someone else looking to find their way to a foreign country. I am not going to mention their names or business or where in Italy they are. That being said, most who followed our journey early on, know all the details. For the last 5 years, we have chosen to not publicly discuss what happened. Why? Well, we truly felt that it was a private, and yes, legal business matter. It was most definitely not something to be splashed all over social media, blogs and podcasts filled with, not surprisingly, half truths as well as some no truths! We had absolutely no interest in interfering with their now continued business and wished them no ill will despite the devastation and financial loss that we experienced. I think age and life experience sprinkled with a little wisdom helped us to not stray from our values or beliefs during that time.
This would be a good time to grab a drink and settle in for a read.
I had been following a rather popular agriturismo in Italy, owned and operated by expats, for quite some time. Like everyone else, I enjoyed following the food, fun and photos. And, perhaps we felt some sort of kinship since they are Americans as well. When the opportunity to purchase their business came up, at exactly the time we were researching properties, it caused us to rethink our vision. Maybe, this was our path. We wouldn’t be owning our own farmhouse, but a business. We contacted the owners, and let them know that we were interested in possibly purchasing. We booked and paid for a stay with them during our next trip to Italy! We were so excited to have the full guest experience. While we were there, we found time with them to discuss the details of the business and reviewed financials that they had prepared. We took it all in and tried to imagine ourselves living in the farmhouse, working in the garden, walking around the local village, and being the ones running this business. Did this feel like home? We left with a growing sense of excitement. The change in our vision and the option of this new idea, started to take root. We spoke excitedly about the possibilities ahead. We returned to the US, and told them we wanted to purchase!
The process of purchasing in Italy, or any foreign country, is a daunting task. And let me be clear, when you decide to go after your dream life, there are sacrifices you choose to make. Financial and practical. We are not, by any means, people with unlimited disposable income. And we felt, this was our chance to live our dream and we were all in. We had done some research on purchasing a home, but not a business. We learned that the basics of which were quite similar. There was a compromesso, and money sent at different stages of the process leading up to the final purchase contract signing. Obviously, we were nervous and unsure of how business dealings were handled in a foreign country, and not to mention the language barrier! We had done what we felt was quite a lot of research on this, and all had mentioned the same documents, and “buzz words” for the necessary people that could be involved. A commercialista, geometra, lawyer, notaio etc. Since the owners were also American and had been through all of this themselves, we chose to trust them and all of the players that they recommended, completely. Mistake number one! Every single person that was a part of this deal worked in the same office together and represented the sellers. Looking back on it now, it still makes us wince at just how naive we were. We truly felt we had done our due diligence along with a measured amount of trust. Once we had signed preliminary documents, and sent initial deposit money, we were on our way to being the new owners of a successful agriturismo and cooking school! Then, the first bump in the road hit us. We received an unexpected Skype call from the sellers telling us that the property they had been renting for all these years was suddenly not available, and we had to find a new property to lease. The reason we were given for this sudden change? The owner wanted a family member to live in it for tax benefits. Now, this all seemed rather sudden to us as the couple had lived in the house for nearly 10 years running a successful business from it, and had a very good relationship with the owner, whom we had briefly met on our last visit. Cue the first of many red flags! Surely, they would have known about this before? We reasoned away the ugly doubt that was beginning to show itself, and moved forward. Funny thing about all of those little red flags, over time they add up! Now we had to acquire a new house AND be the new owners of a business who’s brand was primarily based on the owner’s themselves and this property that was marketed so heavily in photos on social media. This is a lot for devout followers and potential guests to accept with a business that they love and follow so much. They assured us that they would begin searching high and low for the perfect property. Trudging to see some 20+ properties, sharing their experiences on social media and blog posts, of course. We waited patiently for what they would find.
Not long after, we received yet another Skype call that they had found 2 properties and that we needed to get on a plane and get there ASAP to choose. Anxious to keep things moving, we immediately booked those crazy expensive, last minute tickets and jumped on a plane back to Italy. Once we finally arrived, after multiple planes, missed connections, an overnight in London, and changed flights now into Verona and one very long drive over the river and through the woods, we were excited to see these properties and find out the leasing details. When the sun rose the next day, we were off to finally meet all the important people involved in our transaction. The "Commercialista" and the attorney were all conveniently located in the same office. These names had been heralded as saints and the most perfect guides that had been helping our sellers for years to establish their business in Italy and navigate taxes, etc. These were to be key people in our future once we became the new owners and we felt like we had hit the jackpot with all the needed connections. Armed with piles of documents and paperwork that were needed, we were ready. Bank accounts were opened (and what a process that is in Italy!), and paperwork was started. Those 2 properties they had narrowed down, had become just 1. And, as luck would have it, it was managed by the commercialista and his team at the office. How convenient! Off we went, a short drive up the hill to see what would be our new home in Italy and the new home of the business, and to meet the owner. The property was massive! Many bedrooms and grand sitting rooms, a commercial kitchen, and was filled with beautiful antiques. It clearly needed some work and elbow grease from basic neglect, but definitely a solid and beautiful choice, albeit very big. Now, the owner of the large farmhouse, was one that you never forget after meeting. We call her the "Diva Signora", and she was something of a character, and a rather wealthy one at that. Owning many properties in Italy, Canada and France. Decked out in her Prada sunglasses (which she never took off, even indoors), designer bag and shoes and bright orange red lipstick. That picture you’re conjuring up now in your mind, that’s her. She was sizing us up and there were some hushed discussions between her and the 'Commercialista". From this point on, I can only describe the feeling as one of being carried by a wave. Things happened quickly, and plans were made. We expressed some concerns we had about the brand and business and followers embracing us, and whether they would get the bookings needed to begin generating the income needed. We were assured time and time again, that they would absolutely help with the transition and be there for as long as we needed. They would take care of all the marketing, and book the following season for us. So, we let the wave carry us.
Back home to the US to prepare for our return to Italy a few weeks later armed with all that was needed to finalize the purchase and leasing of the house. More monies were transferred and more people were paid their share. I did not have my British citizenship at this time, so I needed to obtain a self employment visa from the Italian consulate in Detroit. At the time, we had no idea that this is in fact one of the most difficult visas to get, especially if you're an American! Needless to say, I never got it. It was decided that Tony would head back to complete the business and I would have to stay here to continue my long back and forth 4 hour drives to Detroit and visits with the consulate trying to get this necessary visa for me to stay in Italy for any length of time. This was a very difficult decision for us. We are one of those annoying couples that actually love doing most everything together and this was our life dream. So, not being there together during one of the most important stages of our new life was excruciating for us. This meant that there were A LOT of text messages and phone calls back and forth with me living here in the US in Italy's time zone. And very little sleep for me. The first order of business for Tony was the signing of the lease for the house. This one simple activity ended up like a scene from a movie. Despite everything being agreed to beforehand, suddenly now our “Diva Signora” had decided that she needed more money and a longer lease. She was stamping her Ferragamo shoes and crossing her arms screeching that she was a prisoner if she signed the lease as it was. You cannot make this stuff up! The next thing you know, we had signed a 27 year lease for more money and had to pay the entire year up front. That feeling of panic and having no other options with your back against a wall and not understanding everything being said around you, makes you do the stupidest of things!
Next up, the signing of the final contract. One evening, after much back and forth as to whether the notaio was even available, it seemed that he was, and after hours. Everyone was rushed off in dirty, sweaty work clothes. The contract would be signed. However, until my original apostille for my identity and for power of attorney was received, it was not legally complete and couldn’t be filed. As far as all the players around the table at the signing? Well, that was another grave mistake on our part. Not ONE person was truly representative of us. We blindly trusted everyone that was recommended to us by the sellers, and they all worked in one office together and truly worked for the sellers. BIG MISTAKE! Put that on the table along with a known language barrier, and you have a recipe for disaster. We trusted everything that was written in that contract as it was translated to us. You know that feeling in your gut that never goes away, because you KNOW something just isn't right?? This feeling had been growing for a few months now, and those red flags had now added up to one giant red waving banner! There were numerous things that had us questioning the contract. Come to find out later from our attorney in Milan, we were correct in questioning its validity. Unbeknownst to us, we were the proud owners of several thousand pounds of potatoes! That is a lot of potato salad my friends. We never saw a single potato. This was so the sellers could avoid paying the entire tax on the money received from the sale utilizing their status as a farm. The contract also claimed that we were fluent in Italian, and numerous other interesting details. But, i’m getting ahead of myself here.
Too many things had transpired in a short amount of time after signing the contract. Things had changed, and their involvement and help for us was dwindling. Remember, their leased property was apparently going away, so they also needed to move. They had to find another place to live. In an effort to help offset the enormous costs we had, furnishing this large home was just one of them, I had thought we could work something out with the furniture that they would no longer need that filled their property. Surely they wouldn’t be needing furniture for 7 apartments once they moved onto their new traveling venture. And, this would help save us some money and time. I inquired about this more than once, and my question was always ignored. When at their home, not one box was ever packed, and no one seemed worried about needing to pack up and move or find another place to live. It was never mentioned. The property that was never available to us, somehow never went anywhere for them. You know the saying “If it walks like a duck…”
Tony and I were in constant contact, and it became obvious to us that something was indeed VERY wrong. We didn't know who to turn to. The only person in Italy to express our concerns, was the "Commercialista". While he did try to save this whole mess, unsuccessfully, we always knew that his loyalty was and always would be, to the sellers. That was it, enough was enough. It was time for Tony to come home so we could, together, collect our thoughts, and go over all the paperwork, and discuss the options in front of us.
After a very long drive into the night back to Rome, he boarded a plane back to the US.
Stay tuned for part 2 and our journey to an Italian lawyer turned dear friend!