Italy for retirement? It doesn’t rank but it does with me

One of my favorite photos from my first year of retirement in Italy: In Praiano on the Amalfi Coast.

I’m 65 years old and that’s a magic number for my American friends who, like myself, grew up with manual typewriters, two TV channels and news that came on newsprint and not through broken cellphone glass. In the U.S., 65 was always considered the standard age of retirement, when you can collect full social security benefits. The government has tweaked that  number over the years but 65 is a general target age, kind of like 18 when we wanted to vote and 21 when we wanted to get drunk.

I have burned-out friends who have retirement dates on their calendar circled more times than the birthdate of their first child. It hangs from their computer screen like a carrot in front of a hungry horse. Inevitably the date is next to a photo of an exotic beach, a country villa or a mountain view.

Their question isn’t when to retire. It’s where. I’m a good foil. I retired to Rome in 2014 at the early age of 57. I tell them that life in Italy is paradise. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been. It’s the least stress I’ve ever had. At one point, my only source of stress was getting enough foam in my cappuccino every morning. Now that I’ve upgraded to a hand-operated foamer, I’m as tranquil as a grapevine, slowly swaying in the Mediterranean breeze.

However, it’s harder than you think to convince people that Italy is where they should spend the rest of their life. The Internet is littered with surveys of Best Places to Retire. They’re from websites and organizations I’ve never heard of but all have their own criteria and evidence to back up their rankings.

Italy is almost nowhere to be found.

I checked six random top-10 retirement destination lists and they include 28 different countries. They range from Vietnam to Denmark, from Australia to Canada. Italy is 11th in the World Population Review and in Live and Invest Overseas.

We love Portugal, too. Marina and I in Lisbon.

Based on compilation of the six surveys, here is my own ludicrously unscientific top 10 list:

  1. Portugal
  2. Mexico
  3. Costa Rica
  4. Panama
  5. Spain
  6. Ecuador
  7. Colombia
  8. France
  9. Australia 
  10. Netherlands  

Business Insider, which listed Portugal No. 1, wrote, “In addition to having an affordable lifestyle with quality healthcare, a temperate climate and ‘excellent food and wine,’ Tricia Pimental, who has lived in Portugal for seven years, said she and her husband moved there for a more ‘ephemeral’ reason: ‘the overarching sense of well-being we experience here.’”

Wrote Live and Invest Overseas on Mexico, which it picked No. 2 behind Portugal: “It’s easy to get to from the States and Canada, it has warm year-round temperatures, it boasts two coastlines full of magnificent beaches, and it offers a low cost of living for people looking to stretch their retirement budgets. The country is familiar, with many of the shops and brands that Americans and Canadians are used to and expat communities set up across the country.”

Each survey uses its own criteria. They include everything from climate to cost of real estate to political system to urban infrastructure. You must pick and choose what’s important to you. Base the most important decision of the rest of your life on my top 10 list above at your own peril.

These surveys made me think. Objectively, how does Italy rank among retirement spots? Why am I so happy here and “experts” don’t think others would be? I decided to draw up my own criteria and give each one in Italy a score from 1-10, 10 being the best. I’ve put on my journalist’s fedora and shelved my subjectivity next to my month’s supply of espresso capsules.

Listing the factors in the importance to my retirement, this is as brutally honest as I can be:

I pay 1,000 euros a month for a 55-square-meter apartment 10 minutes from the center of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Cost of living

This should be atop everyone’s list. It is mine and I find Italy very affordable. It’s not Vietnam or Ecuador or even Portugal but it’s a lot cheaper than the United States. I have a 55-square-meter apartment with a wraparound balcony a 10-minute tram ride from Rome’s city center for 1,000 ($1,160) euros. I pay 250 euros for a yearly public transportation pass. Healthy, delicious food in public markets is very cheap. You can get by in Rome, depending on your lifestyle, for 30,000 euros a year. You can live very well on 40,000. Score: 8.

Is there a prettier city than Rome at night?

Beauty

Unsurpassed. I’ve always said it’s a tossup between Switzerland and French Polynesia as the most beautiful countries in the world but Italy is in the running. Beautiful beaches along 4,700 miles of coastline and a bevy of exotic islands. Vineyards and olive groves in rolling countryside. Hill towns dating back to the Middle Ages. The question I ask in determining this score isn’t what’s beautiful in Italy. But what isn’t? Score: 10.

Healthcare

If you’re 65 and want to see 85, healthcare is huge. While Italy isn’t ranked among top retirement spots, its healthcare is annually ranked everywhere in the top three. As I wrote last month, healthcare is really cheap here. Last month I had a full body checkup that included four tests and consultation in a private clinic and it cost only 450 euros ($530). I priced the same tests in the U.S. and it was $2,732. Being a legal resident puts me in the Italian healthcare system which gives me a family doctor. I can make free visits. Italian healthcare does have its critics, as I reported. They say the quality is hit and miss. But I have faith in the World Health’s Organization ranking Italy No. 2 in the world behind France. The U.S. is 37th. Score: 8.

Me at a pancetta factory in Vedole, Emilia-Romagna.

Food

I couldn’t live in a country with bad food. It’s hugely important for me. The great thing about Italy is no matter how lonely you get, no matter how angry you get with bureaucracy or the opposite sex, you always have dinner to look forward to. I’ve been in Italy 7½ years. I’ve had three bad meals. Three. Two were pizzas. Also, the food in public markets is so fresh and so natural and so flavorful, you don’t need to eat out. I’m not a good cook. But I’m a good cook in Italy. Score: 10.

Marina and I with our friends Lea Abbott Loft and Jamie Abbott in Abruzzo.

Lifestyle

When I retired I wanted a different culture. I wanted to learn another way of life. You can do that in Italy. At least, you can in the South. Northern Italy, particularly Milan, is fast-paced, business oriented and as serious as a Fiat pileup. But in the South, even in the capital of Rome, you can take the pulse of the people by going to your local trattoria and seeing families while away the afternoon with bottles of wine and plates of antipasti. I like the Italian lifestyle, where my biggest decision all day is whether to drink red or white wine. Score: 8.

 People

I’ve been to 109 countries. Italians are the nicest people I’ve ever met. In 7 ½  years here I have yet to meet a rude man. I’ve met some rude women but I’m a single guy. That conflict is universal. (And you people read my blog. Can you blame them?) But Italians are curious, polite and open. I have more friends here than I ever had in Denver where I lived 23 years before moving to Rome. And Italians have hard lives. The economy is terrible. They face so many dead ends. But they place more value in things that are important: friends, family, spare time and good food and wine. They’re simple people. And I adore them. Score: 9.

A bus catching fire in Rome, a common occurrence.

Public services

The post office is the worst in the world. Rome’s public transportation is the worst in Europe. Internet reach is spotty. Cellphone billing is baffling. I tell people living in Rome is like living in a third world country with a big, beautiful, glamorous city right across the street. I have people bring me important documents from the U.S. instead of having them mailed. I bring a newspaper to the post office when I pay my bills. If you have little patience, Italy is not the place for you. Score: 3.

Cleanliness

This greatly depends on where you go. I found Milan remarkably clean. Bologna? Spotless. The farther south you go, the higher the garbage climbs. Rome is the filthiest capital in Europe. It might be second and third, too. A mysterious conflict with Ama, the agency that collects garbage, has left dumpsters overflowing all over the city. Some days my street in a modern, middle-class neighborhood resembles a rural alley in India. Before you consider moving to Rome, check out the video of the wild boar fighting seagulls for garbage on a city street. Score: 2.

Visas

Italy is famous for its red tape. It takes forever to get things done. One hand of the long bureaucratic blackberry bush doesn’t know what the other hand is doing. It’s confusing, frustrating and time consuming. First, you must get a visa from your closest Italian consulate and that requires similar patience. Second, once you’re here you must wait a year before you get the prized Permesso di Soggiorno, which allows you to stay. However, if you follow my friend Rick Zullo’s terrific step-by-step Permesso application guide, it’s much easier. I’ve also found if you have a sizable bank account or stock portfolio, you will get a visa. Remember: You choose to live in Italy; other immigrants are desperate to leave their homeland. Score: 5.

Sunset at Sabaudia just south of Rome.

Climate

I put this last because I’m not a big weather guy. I really don’t care. But I know many of you do. Obviously it depends on where you live but Italy has something for everyone. You like snow and mountains? Come to Piedmont. You like sun and beaches? Come to Puglia. You like warm and mild? Hey, come to Rome. We even have four distinct seasons here. It’s rarely too hot to wear a stylish scarf which is de rigueur about nine months a year. Score: 8.

So that’s an average score of 7.4. That’s pretty good. And yes, it’s objective. You don’t believe me? Fine. Go to Portugal and find a good pizza.