“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the story of people who decide to pursue their dreams in their own way.
In 1978, when Holly Herrmann was 20, she flew to Bolzano, Italy, a picturesque town at the foot of the Tyrolean Alps, to participate in the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition. A native of California, the aspiring concert pianist fell in love with a country so intimately linked to classical music, food and beauty. She vowed to make it her home one day.
“At that time, I was living in Seattle and it was my first time in Italy. I was fascinated by this cohesive and beautiful historic center which was so wonderfully rich in life and activity, ”said Ms Herrmann, now 63, of the medieval heart of Bolzano. “Italy offered a different lifestyle that I liked more than what I lived at home. I knew that at some point I would end up living there.
It would take 38 years to settle permanently in Italy. After her piano competition, she flew to New York to prepare for her planned move to Manhattan as a professional pianist. Then she flew to Seattle, where on the first day of her return she was introduced, through college friends, to Jim Herrmann. The two quickly began an intense friendship. In less than a year, they were married. Over the next few years, they had two children. (Mr. Herrmann already had two children from a previous marriage.) New York’s hopes have vanished. Italy has become even weaker.
But his dream of moving to Italy never died. In 2015, at her daughter’s request, she spent a month in Orvieto, a medieval hilltop town in central Italy, to see if she was still passionate about the Italian way of life. Mr. Herrmann joined her for 10 days. The trip convinced them both that this should be their new reality. The deep desire for a lifestyle change has become financially possible with the sale of their home savings and retirement savings.
In 2016, the couple resumed their lives in Seattle. Unsure of what their future would hold for them, they first rented their four-bedroom house and then later sold it along with their two cars and possessions too large to take with them. They boarded a plane bound for Italy with one piece of hand luggage and one suitcase each. For two years, the couple lived in Lecce, a bustling city in southern Italy with Baroque-era churches and narrow streets lined with rustic restaurants. But the remoteness of Lecce made it difficult to travel in Europe. So in 2018, they settled in Padua, an ancient city with arcaded streets and stylish cafes just 33 minutes by train from Venice.
Today the couple live in a two-bedroom apartment that overlooks Piazza dei Signori, a charming little square in the historic center of Padua. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)
What finally started your fire?
A few times a year, my children would hear me say: “When I am old, I will go to Italy. The last time I said it was in 2015, my daughter said to me, “Why do you say when you are old? Why don’t you do it now? It really struck me. All the boundaries I had created – Jim, the kids, the house – were self-imposed to make me feel like I couldn’t achieve my dream. I needed to let them down and dream bigger and more freely. When I told Jim I wanted to move there, he surprised me by agreeing with my daughter that I should go for a month to see how I felt. Then all the weight I was carrying fell off.
What steps have you taken to make this work?
I signed up for Italian lessons in Seattle. I researched where I should spend the month. I had already experienced Bolzano, so I decided to go to Orvieto, which is a small town in Umbria between Florence and Rome. Jim joined me and loved it.
Back home, we decided to move. In January 2016, Jim retired. I sold my seven foot Steinway piano to one of my students. We had a real estate sale. We rented our house in Seattle, which paid for our life in Italy. We later sold the house to continue financing life here. We started in Lecce because we wanted to go to a place where the locals didn’t speak English and we would be required to speak Italian which we were. I have been speaking almost fluently ever since.
How did you overcome all the challenges of living in a foreign country?
I didn’t want life to get boring. I wanted it to be filled with adventure. If you want, then move to another country. At the start of Lecce, we broke the handle of our pot. We only needed a simple screw, but this mundane act turned into a five hour adventure. How do I find a hardware store? What is the Italian word for handle? How do you take the bus to get there? I wanted our life after retirement to be filled with challenges, which is why I thrive here.
Did you see this movement as a second act?
I have the palpable feeling that one chapter is over and another has started. My life story now includes that I live in Italy. This is not a new book, but an exciting new chapter – written in Italian.
How has this experience changed you?
I feel like my life is rich here. Italians have an art of living. They take pleasure in small moments. I learned to do that too. I feel seen and understood in a way that I was not before.
How is your Italian life different from your life in Seattle?
This has changed dramatically as we no longer own a car. We live in the center of a beautiful historic town which includes a nearby river that we walk around almost every day where we come to the “Specola” which is an observatory built on top of an ancient tower. We shop, go to restaurants and outdoor fruit and vegetable markets, meet friends within a few blocks of our apartment. We can take a train for lunch or dinner in Venice whenever we want. Before the pandemic, we traveled easily across Europe.
What kind of advice can you offer someone who is feeling stuck?
Make a list of five essential things that must happen to make your plan a reality. Start with one. Don’t watch them all as it can be overwhelming. If you can accomplish one, go to two. Then see if you can finish the list. Don’t do anything drastic. Give it a try to see if you are suited for this kind of life and if it makes you happy or uncomfortable. I had a strong motivation to do it. If you have to do something, you should try to do it.
What has life taught you?
Regret is of no use. You can’t go back and change a decision you’ve made. Try to kiss where you are, it opens up the future. When you are centered and focused on the joy and beauty of your life, life flows effortlessly. Regret plays no role in this philosophy.
We’re looking for people who decide it’s never too late to change gears, change their lives, and pursue their dreams. Should we talk to you or someone you know? Share your story here.