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Monday, 03 May 2010

Living in Rome, Florence and Paris on a Fixed Income

Written by Russ Firlik
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“Travel is more than the seeing of sights. It is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Elizabeth Drew

We were fortunate, especially with the current economic and housing crisis, to have sold our small apartment in New Hampshire for a bit of a profit. Since we had recently retired after over thirty years as educators, we now had the time, the incentive and the self-determination to follow our long-loved passion of slow traveling. In other words: we are senior citizens who will spend our junior year abroad. For the first time in our 45 years of marriage we were homeless, jobless, and after giving our 2003 Honda Hybrid to our daughter, also carless. What were we to do? Follow our passion!

According to the Council of International Studies Abroad (2007-8), 241,791 American students were studying abroad, which represents a 143 percent increase from a decade earlier. Conversely, the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that there are over 37 million people over the age of 65, and that number grows each year. We figured there was room for both juniors and seniors to co-habit abroad.

Living in Rome, Florence and Paris on a Fixed Income, Europe on a Fixed Income, year abroad Rome, Florence, and Paris, seniors on a junior year abroad, Russ FirlikWe never had the opportunity to study abroad when we were younger, so we decided to make our passion a reality. We are both enthusiasts of travel and the visual arts: sculpture, painting and architecture. We have had no formal training in any of the arts, but many previous travels had opened our eyes, hands, and hearts to the visual arts. The theme of personal development became our slow travel focus. Slow travel, as we defined it, is spending quality time in one location to be able to engage in and take advantage of the cultural opportunities (visual arts, history, the people and their living patterns) that the location offers. In other words, slow your travel down, but your motivation and passion keep you moving forward, and to take the time to learn about and reflect upon the quality experiences that await.

As an aside, neither of us are linguistic wizards. In fact, I have diagnosed myself as having ‘‘L.D.“, or Linguistic Dyslexia, not really a clinical diagnosis I might add. In other words, I have always had difficulty learning another language. Emily, on the other hand, has a marvelous capacity to be able to understand a few languages but certainly is not fluent in any foreign language.

Not to be daunted by our language inadequacies, we wanted to follow the great visual arts and history scene that traced almost 2000 years of progress in three distinct areas: Rome, Florence and Paris. These Western treasures of the sculpture, architecture and painting would be our slow travel homes for a full year. We selected Rome for three months because it was here that the benefits of the cultural rebirth (Renaissance) were most evident. The economic and human powers of Rome proved to be the grounding for the eventual Italian Renaissance in Florence.

For our „second semester“ we selected Florence and Tuscany for two months. The obvious reasons were the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance: its sculptures, architecture and paintings. The third location chosen would be Paris for four months to finish off the year abroad. The major reason for Paris was because of the many opportunities to experience, first hand, the evolution of the pre-Impressionists, Impressionists and the Expressionist painters and writers. These three slow travel locations would provide us seniors with a full year abroad.

Living in Rome, Florence and Paris on a Fixed Income, Europe on a Fixed Income, year abroad Rome, Florence, and Paris, seniors on a junior year abroad, Russ Firlik

The research, planning and preparation were not that difficult, albeit time consuming. The added assistance for us, of course, was the wider scope of research that information-technology provided. Moreover, by having an agreed upon goal and shared passion, it made for an enjoyable and thought provoking experience for both of us. We also agreed that two to four months in one location would be ideal.

Since we were homeless, carless, and jobless, we had to rely on our monthly teachers‘ pension and our small social security income stream. We obviously had to stay within our monthly income, just like everyone else; so had to maintain a reasonable and practical budget. Moreover, with our small profit from the sale of our apartment we needed to save that money for a down payment in case we decided to purchase another flat or rent when we returned after our year abroad. To be good consumers of slow travel, we had many questions to clarify. For example:

o How and where do you secure accommodations in Rome, Florence and Paris within our monthly budget?

o What are the expenses of living in a foreign country?

o What about inexpensive flights?

o Can we stay for more than 90 days without a special visa?

o What about money exchange and extracting money once we are in Europe?

o Is our health good enough to live abroad for a long period?

o What about our language skills, or lack thereof?

o What type of clothes should we bring, and how are we to dress in these new foreign territories? Does it matter?

These, and many more questions arose during our three months of preparation, as we waited for the closing on our apartment.

The first, and most important consideration was our health. We are thankful that we are in rather good health, but were we healthy enough to travel and stay for long periods of time in a foreign country? We followed up and passed our physicals, checked and cleaned our teeth, and received the necessary immunizations, just as a preventive measure. We were “classified” and “certified” as healthy for slow travel.

Living in Rome, Florence and Paris on a Fixed Income, Europe on a Fixed Income, year abroad Rome, Florence, and Paris, seniors on a junior year abroad, Russ FirlikAfter extensive research employing the many existing online renting-leasing accommodations networks, such as and, as well as numerous excellent travel guidebooks, radio travel shows, e.g., Frommers, we found our accommodations in each of the three destinations. Being ever so cognizant of our financial situation, we had to select locations and accommodations that were within our budget, yet, if needed, accessible to public transport. Another important consideration for us was that we be near a park or park-like setting, an open area to appreciate nature within the city itself. Furthermore, we are fortunate grandparents to three small grandchildren, and the thought of leaving them for an entire year was heart wrenching. This was much too difficult to endure without staggering the slow travel visits with stops back home. We decided to compromise our hearts, minds and funds and make sure that we spent some time back with the grandchildren each time we made the subsequent foreign visit. This might sound costly, but believe us, it was well worth the extra cost to be with our grandchildren, albeit intermittently.

“Rome is a dream that keeps returning

for the rest of your life.”

Anna Akhmatova

Living in Rome, Florence and Paris on a Fixed Income, Europe on a Fixed Income, year abroad Rome, Florence, and Paris, seniors on a junior year abroad, Russ FirlikThe accommodations in Rome – We opted for an apartment just outside the centro storico, historical center, because it is less costly than inside the touristy area. We used the Goggol “walking person“ to pinpoint the exact location. We had wonderful landlord-sisters who spoke English and provided us with a small, clean, well-furnished apartment, with easy access to public transport to the old city in a dense residential area. Also, there were three beautiful parks within 10 to 20 minutes walk from our flat, and that included the Villa Borghese. Perfect! One has to make sure that the lease agreement is very clear about whether or not utilities and cleaning are included. Are there any taxes that the renter must pay? How much and what happens to the deposit, if required? Is there Internet, do you pay for it? Telephone usage-costs? How are the monthly lease payments made, for example, PayPal, bank transfers, check or cash? Once these preliminaries were clarified and accepted by both parties, our first accommodations were set.

Money exchange: Just as you value your health, you must also value your finances. Money exchange is always a challenge since the Euro and dollar are inexplicably conversely interconnected. When the stock market is up, generally the dollar is down against foreign currencies, and the reverse is true as well. We watched carefully the exchange rate, not the market, to make our important money decisions. When the exchange rates were more favorable we purchases cash Euros, and used a credit/debit card when it tended to be more of a favorable rate of exchange. If the credit/debit card rate were higher than the cash rate of exchange we would use cash. The currency exchange rate is sometimes as volatile as the market and you have to be a careful examiner of the exchange rates. We carefully selected a bank that had favorable fees and services.

Flights: Again, due to competition and comparative search engines available, European flights were relatively less expensive than we imagined. However, you have to be a keen researcher to secure the best flight deals. In addition, you have to have some flexibility in your travel itinerary and dates.

In summary, we secured accommodations that were within our monthly housing budget in Rome. We knew what our cost for the three months would be. We learned how to use the efficient transport system in order to visit the sites that we were destined to see and feel. The total expenses for the three months living in Rome, including return-flights, all airport transfers, living expenses, that is, food, beverages, museum passes, bus and train expenses, books, was $153.00 per day –for the two of us! This was not only within our monthly income steam, but we actually saved a small bit and we used it for a flight home. Ironically, we were fortunate in that the Euro vs. the Dollar turned in our favor from initially 1.43 to buy Euros to 1.28.

Our next stop was Florence and Tuscany- the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance.

“The Florentines, in fact, invented the Renaissance, which is the same as saying that they invented the modern world.” Mary McCarthy

Florence accommodation: Florence and the Tuscan hills were our next experiences. To be near Florence was important, but so was the experience of the Tuscan towns and villages, with their pre-Christian churches and art and their 10-12th century frescos. We searched to find a location that was not directly in the expensive city of Florence, but Living in Rome, Florence and Paris on a Fixed Income, Europe on a Fixed Income, year abroad Rome, Florence, and Paris, seniors on a junior year abroad, Russ Firliknearby and reachable via public transport, while still being in the Tuscan countryside. We wanted a totally different cultural lifestyle than that of Rome. We settled on a rather inexpensive (off-season) 15th-century villa apartment, high atop a Tuscan hill. It was large, clean, and up several flights of stairs, and since it was during October and November, colder than usual with fewer tourists as well.

We knew that to visit the many Tuscan villages and explore the sculpture, architecture and paintings in these towns we had to rent a small economical vehicle. We chose a small Fiat. This expense, plus the expensive of petrol, was mitigated somewhat by the lower rent we paid for the apartment that was 17 kilometers from Florence. Italy’s utilities, especially in the Tuscan hills are expensive since they have to import most of their energy from outside the country. We planned for that expense, which our lovely landlady indicated was based upon “individual usage” and, understandably, very difficult to project. Nonetheless, everyday we used the small Fiat to visit 32 Tuscan villages and towns, and Living in Rome, Florence and Paris on a Fixed Income, Europe on a Fixed Income, year abroad Rome, Florence, and Paris, seniors on a junior year abroad, Russ Firlikused public transport- in this case the nearest train-station was a 10 minute car ride from our apartment to the Bagno on Ripoli station to go to Florence at a very reasonable cost.

The total expenses for our two months in Florence/Tuscany were $173.00 per day-per couple. Since the car and gas averaged $27 per day, our expenses would have been less, but one cannot travel to most Tuscan villages and towns without a vehicle. We stayed within budget, as this per day cost was just a tad below our allotted and fixed monthly budget. Moreover, this per day cost included all expenses incurred: rental car for two months, petrol, living expenses (food, tea, caffe, but rarely eating out), rent and utilities, museum and gallery passes, train passes, books, airport transfers, exchange fees. We did not purchase anything for ourselves in Rome or Tuscany but brought home memories instead.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” M. Proust

After we‘d studied, read, saw, and felt the visual arts of Rome, the beginning of the Italian Renaissance in Florence, and now “le climax final” of our year abroad: Paris, the art mecca

“Add three letters to Paris and you get: Paradise.“

Once again location was our focus, as we knew that Paris would be relatively expensive, and at the time the Euro was strong against the dollar at almost 1.50. Searching the many online leasing services, we found a small apartment- within our accommodations budget- in the Marais, in arrondissement #4. This allowed us to walk to the Musee de Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, and Musee de Orangerie, as well as a dozen or so other visual arts arenas. The very efficient metro and bus systems were rather inexpensive. Since you pay between $14 and 19 for two museum tickets, we purchased at a bargain price a yearly museum pass that covered the Musee de Louvre and other related museums. This pass allowed us after the first seven visits, we had unlimited entrances to the Louvre and the other related museums. We also purchased monthly pubic transport passes (buses and metro) at half the cost per month.

The French (and Italians) are very modern people who learn English at school, see American films, love American music, and have American and British TV programs on their home televisions. Moreover, they accommodate very nicely all those tourists, especially Americans, British and Australians. Accordingly, we were always polite to and respectful of our host nationals by attempting to speak a few Italian and French words such as: please, thank you, good day, good-bye, how are you, we would like, this/that, how do you say in Italian/French, etc., but conversely, the Italians and French for the most part, answered our inquires and amateur requests in English. The Italians and French are very contemporary thinking and caring people who know how to make foreigners feel extremely comfortable and welcomed.

Living in Rome, Florence and Paris on a Fixed Income, Europe on a Fixed Income, year abroad Rome, Florence, and Paris, seniors on a junior year abroad, Russ FirlikThe daily costs for everything for the four months in Paris including: rent, airport transfers, very inexpensive Air France flights, living expenses, museum and public transportation fees, books, pharmacy items, long-stay visa fee, and maps was $174.00 per day for both of us for the four months, and still just within our monthly income budget.

In conclusion, we can justly and unequivocally state that in all three cities: Rome, Florence/Tuscany and Paris, we took advantage of every free exhibit, free open galleries, free museums of the City of Paris, free music available at churches and halls, free visits to museums and monuments on first Sundays of each month, as well as, reduced rates, when applicable, for seniors. And the most important savings were out our front door- the walks around the museum-like city streets of Rome, Florence/Tuscany and Paris. We are both personally, educationally, historically and culturally much more informed in mind and heart than before we had experienced our year abroad.

Our junior year abroad affirmed the fact that if you are willing to do the extensive research, define a budget and stay within it, develop or follow a passion, be, and stay healthy, and forego too many self-indulgences, you will enjoy the cultural, educational, historical and personal experiences that will be far more appreciated at a mature age. Most importantly, as 18th century philosopher, J.W. von Goethe stated, “ What you See in Rome is what you Bring to Rome.” We do not think that we would have had the cognitive maturity or psycho-social development of mind and heart in our youth to understand what Goethe meant, but we do now.

One last bit of advice from a seasoned traveler in his day, E. Hemingway:

“Never travel with anyone you do not love.”

Emily, Amore ti amo.

Forward on, Seniors, have a Slow-Go-

Follow that Passion and those Dreams!

©Russ Firlik

He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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