Doing Italy’s Thea Duncan, If you’re thinking of moving to Italy, You will want to know her.

Doing Italy

I met Thea Duncan through my friend Georgette, Girl in Florence.

People are always asking me about moving to Italy. I found the person that can help with all the questions you have. Moving to Italy is a very personal experience, and it is not one size fits all by any means. Although there are some basics that one needs to know before embarking on this life-changing endeavor, Thea can help you.

I thought she would be a really cool person to introduce you to. Of course, you can always ask me questions, and I will do my best to answer them. But two heads are better than one, am I right?

I think you will enjoy this interview. Thanks, Thea. xx

A little background on Thea:

Thea Duncan is the Founder of Doing Italy, a company that helps people gain the knowledge they need to move to Italy with ease while avoiding many of the pitfalls that negatively affect most ex-pats when moving abroad.

Trinidad and Tobago-born and Miami-raised, Duncan spent much of her life traveling the globe before Italy captured her heart. She studied for her master’s degree at Milan’s Bocconi University in the early 2000s, later holding roles with some of Italy’s most storied fashion and design houses – including Gucci and Luxottica.

Doing Italy, which began as Duncan’s effort to reconnect with travelers and curate her Milan, now offers individuals the opportunity to get an even more authentic understanding of Italian culture by helping them move abroad. The company offers one on one sessions and group coaching where students dive into just about everything a foreigner should know about moving to Italy. This includes insights into the Italian job market, to why, if an Italian home announcement says an apartment is unfurnished, it most likely means you literally need to bring your own kitchen sink.

I had some questions for Thea:

Q: How long have you lived in Italy?

A: I’m originally from Trinidad and Tobago. My family and I moved to the United States, Miami to be precise, when I was about 6 years old. Miami has a huge Latin American influence, and I’m so grateful that my parents had the hindsight to enroll me into a bilingual school that intensively taught Spanish (and French and German – but I took Spanish). This gave me a very multicultural and intercultural outlook on life from a young age. In fact, in fifth grade, we took a class trip to Spain. To me, that seemed absolutely normal, but I realize now that it’s not most people’s reality. 

Many years later, I met a young Italian man in college, a study abroad student. We started dating, and when his semester was up, he convinced me to come back with him to Italy. It was 2002. 

I ended up doing a semester abroad in Spain, which I absolutely loved, and a semester in Italy, in L’Aquila, a university town in the Abruzzo region of Italy. 

While I had an incredibly memorable time in Spain, Italy stole my heart, and I was committed to figuring out how I could get to experience more of it.

 Q: You are married to an Italian; how did you meet?

A: My husband and I met about a decade after my first trip to Italy. By this point in time, I had returned to Milan to pursue my master’s degree, and then I had returned to the States shortly thereafter. 

 As my husband, Diego, explains it, he saw my photo on a mutual friend’s Facebook page and was convinced that I looked like the Black woman that lived in his building. Evidently, to him, it made more sense to reach out to me on Facebook than to say hi “in real life” to the woman that lived in his building. 

Diego proceeded to Facebook stalk me for months (not in a scary way) until I eventually agreed to meet him in person. During that time, I was working for a company that frequently brought me to Milan, so I agreed to meet him on a work trip. 

The rest is history.

But I think it’s worth noting that I did meet this woman that lived in his building. We look nothing alike. 

 Q: How long did it take you to learn Italian?

A: Only about 8 months. I started studying Italian during my semester in Spain (in a class that was taught in Gallego! lol). Then I moved to L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Almost no one spoke English, so I was forced to learn and practice. It’s what I call a very intensive Italian school, and I really recommend doing something similar if anyone is really serious about learning the language. 

Q: When did you start your business Doing Italy?

A: You know how people say that when one door closes another one opens…or that when something horrible happens in your life, a lot of times it’s God’s way of point your life in a new direction? Well, that’s exactly what starting my business was for me. 

A few years ago, I had an injury a stupid freak accident that resulted in me being on bed rest for months and in pain for way too long taking high doses of pain killers.

After watching every single episode of Scandal, and just about everything else that I wanted to see (and things I probably didn’t want to see) on Netflix, I decided it was time for me to retake control of my life. 

I decided to spend my time at home learning, so I read more and decided to focus the hours I did spend online on things I found intellectually stimulating. 

One day, I happened upon a woman that was creating these absolutely incredible tours in Latin America. Experiences that were light years away from the cookie-cutter superficial way of doing tourism. I thought, OMG, I have to do something similar in Italy. From my previous years working in travel and tourism, I knew all about those big bus tours where people ate at tourist traps right in front of the Colosseum that sell frozen pizzas to unsuspecting tourists. 

My business was born out of a desire to help more tourists see the real Italy – to travel slowly through this country that I love so much.

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Q: How has Covid changed your business in the last year?

A: Then Covid happened, and obviously, travel and tourism was out of the picture. I spent the first few months of the pandemic, when we really didn’t know what was happening, praying, meditating, and cooking. Then one day, I thought, “I wonder if people want help moving to Italy”. And so I decided to test that hypothesis. I created a program and sold it to my audience. I am so blessed and happy to say that they loved it! Helping people with Master Classes on How to Move to Italy has been amazing.

And oddly enough the whole process felt so incredibly easy. Yes, there were so many things I had to learn and do along the way. I spent quite a few nights up until 2 or 3 AM, and a few times until 6 AM. Plus, I worked just about every single weekend to get it done…

But somehow it still felt easy. Like all of my experience in Italy collided for this perfect moment. For example, I’ve held several very different jobs in Italy – from being a private English teacher to working in the corporate communications department of Gucci. And since I’ve lived in so many different places in Italy – from the small university town outside of Rome, to Pescara the seaside town in Abruzzo, to the internationally acclaimed city of Florence, to the bustling city of Milan — I feel like God has uniquely positioned me to help people navigate the ups and downs of moving abroad and more specifically to moving to Italy. 

I realized that over the years, since when I first visited in 2002, I had gained so much experience on what to do, and perhaps equally important, what not to do. 

 Q: What does your business do?

A: I created an online course that helps people move to Italy. It’s the sum of everything I and lots of expat friends wished we had known when we first moved to Italy. And while my knowledge of ins and outs of moving to Italy is extensive. I don’t know everything, so I have incredible (if I do say so myself) guest speakers (immigration lawyers. tax accountants, and real estate professionals) come on, who also share their experience and know-how. 

Most recently, my team and I have also started offering one on one Move to Italy Coaching and Consulting. We have two programs, one for individuals/families that want to move – for example for people that want to retire in Italy. The other is for people who want to start a business in Italy – either as a freelancer or even a product-based business. 

I was very fortunate that I married a very capable project manager (by profession and mental configuration). We also have a very capable network of friends and professional acquaintances. Trustworthy people that we have been able to lean on and ask for assistance over the years. Not everyone has that. 

We have expat friends that made horrible decisions when it came to setting up their partita iva (their freelance business structure). Or another friend who was going through the hassle of redoing her permesso di soggiorno (permit of stay) every year because she didn’t know that since she’s married to an Italian the procedure for her was a bit different. 

Plus, from doing the course I realized that some people have all their ducks in a row, but they just need someone to metaphorically hold their hand and say, don’t worry it will be okay. This feels like a big leap but lots of people before you, and after you will do it. And you can do it too. 

So the one and one consulting brings together these two aspects professionals they can trust to help them with the bureaucratic difficulties of moving abroad, plus they get more personalized access to me. I kind of see myself as your knowledgeable friend on the ground who you can call and send WhatsApp with questions. The friend that will listen to your problems and help you find solutions. 

 Q: Any future plans or events you’d like to share?

A: I have so many thoughts, ideas, and plans in the works, but for now, you guys are going to have to follow me on my social channels. I’m “Doing Italy” just about everywhere but I especially like hanging out on Instagram these days. That way you can see all the things that my team and I have cooking up. 

Doing Italy: Guidebook Part I

 

 

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Traveling to Italy, my first week back

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Ciao Guys! If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I have been back in Italy for a little over a week. Traveling to get here was quite effortless. After 2 Covid tests, one from Walgreens and one from Delta at the airport, I was on my way. Because I am an Italian resident, we own a home and live here, most of the year entry was easy. I have no idea when Italy will open to the world, but I am optimistic that come fall, it will be open, and Italy will welcome travelers, I would assume with a vaccine passport, but we shall see.

As I write this, my region of Tuscany is in orange. Italy has a system of well-outlined restrictions based on color-coded zones. Red, orange, yellow and white. Red being a strict lockdown, orange having restrictions on bars and restaurants and travel in the region and between regions, and a curfew of 10:00 pm. Yellow is less restricted and allows travel between regions, and the opening of bars and restaurants for lunch. For the official codes, read about it here in my favorite magazine The Florentine.

For me, these restrictions don’t affect me much since I live in the countryside and travel very little.

I am in the middle of editing the finished manuscript of my cookbook, La Fortezza Cookbook. Once England can travel, our British team, photographer David Loftus, and our stylist Rosie Scott, can enter the country, and we can start working on the winter chapter. I am hoping that this will be mid-March, bu obviously, I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, we are preparing the garden for the spring, and I have some cool additions to La Fortezza coming soon. The pool will commence and my friend and uber stylist Barbara will be helping me style it up. There will be the construction of the pool pergola, and lots of planting going on.

Until next time, be sure to check the La Fortezza Workshop page, and if you want to join us here, I would not wait. Once Italy opens up, it is going to be nuts!  In the meantime, I will keep posting on Instagram. We have some fun Instagram Lives coming up, so don’t forget to check in and see what’s happening!

xx

 

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William Abranowicz’s new book

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I couldn’t go this month without telling everyone about Bill Abranowicz’s new baby. Some of you already know that I adore him. He is one of the finest humans I know. Not only is he incredibly talented, but he has an enormous heart. Not only is he a fine photography instructor at La Fortezza Workshops, but he is also a social activist and uses his talents to spread his message. His latest endeavor is This Far and No Further, a book that documents the voting rights movement in America.

Beautifully captured this is a book that should live on your shelf.

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I hope you pick up a copy and come to La Fortezza Photography Workshop with Bill in September. Spaces are going fast, and as I like to say, it’s worth the flight just to hear his lecture, and this year we will make sure he talks a bit about his new book. Bring your copy, and he’ll sign it for you. Congratulations Bill, it’s truly an honor and great pleasure to know you. x

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The Truffle Hunters Movie

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Many years ago, I happily achieved one of the life goals on my bucket list. I went to the White Truffle Festival in Alba, Italy. For many years I hoped to attend, and when I finally did, it truly was a highlight, an experience that I will never forget. I had been to Alba many times the Piedmont region as it was close to where we lived in Alassio. I would always walk down the main street and visit one of my favorite stores, a tiny very chic boutique Tartufi Ponzi. They carry all sorts of truffle-infused products along with beautiful fresh white truffles which are all displayed under lock and key in the front window. One of my favorite products is their truffle potato chips. Always perfect for aperitivo.

As most of you know, I am obsessed with truffles, and truffle hunting, and the business of truffles. I was able to return to Alba a couple of years ago when I took the La Fortezza Workshop team, the chef, Philip, and the guest liaison, Rachel, to the 2018 Slow Food Festival in Bra, Italy. The city of Bra is right next door to Alba. Of course, I had to take the team to visit my favorite truffle store in Alba Tartufi Ponzi.

As luck would have it, that evening Gianfranco, the owner, was in the store. He was delightful, telling us all about his business, the wholesale/manufacturing business and the retail store started by his parents. One of the charming stories he told us is that when he was a kid, he was not thrilled about this family business. He told us that kids would tease him and say that they could tell he was coming because of the smell of truffles that preceeded him. We all laughed when he told us the story.

We talked and shopped for an hour. In passing, I asked him where he would recommend we have dinner. He was so kind and made us a reservation at his favorite restaurant in Alba immediately. He joined us at the restaurant when he closed up the store. We had the most delicious truffle-infused meal. Of course, the truffles at the restaurant were supplied by Gianfranco. In fact, he is a bit of a rock star in Alba as you can imagine. I felt I had made a new friend. Gianfranco and I have indeed become friends we keep in touch; he’s just the nicest guy and I hope to see him this year.

Speaking of this year, some exciting news is that Gianfranco was the fixer and on a new movie/documentary called The Truffle Hunters. I asked Gianfranco a few questions about how he became involved, and what his role was in helping make this movie happen. I am so excited to share this interview with you.

Q: How did you participate in the film, I remember you telling me that you helped with arranging the activities and organizing the truffle hunters that appeared in the movie?

A: I actively participated in the film. I was what they call a fixer, the liaison between the filmmaker and the truffle hunters in the Piedmont. I am very connected in this world given my decades of experience in the world of truffles. I helped connect the filmmakers with my friends and my relatives, these are the people I work with every day in my business. I helped the filmmakers unlock our world, a world that is little known and sometimes secretive. I loved being part of introducing the world to our world. A place filled with the natural beauty around us. The world of white truffles cannot be studied in books. Truffle hunting is a skill passed down verbally over generations. I was fortunate to be born into a family of truffle hunters. My family taught me everything that I needed to know.

Q: How did you meet the filmmaker?

A: I met Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw during the annual White Truffle Festival. They came into my shop and from there we started a wonderful collaboration. It was amazing that I could even stop to talk to them. This is a time that there are tons of people in our shop. We were all busy selling truffles. It was a tough time for me and my family as well, my Father was very ill and I had to manage the store and help my Mother. The highlight was the filmmakers asking me to help with this project. It gave me something to look forward to during this challenging time. We communicated, and I got an idea of what they were looking for. Once they arrived to film, I had everything arranged for them. So many wonderful people allowed themselves to be filmed, I was so grateful.

Q: Who do you sell your truffles to in the US?

A: Thanks to this new world of technology, it is much easier. Our website has connected us to the world. Currently, we are working on our online store. But most of our customers contact us by e-mail or by phone. Our clients include serious foodies and chefs. We sell to some of the best restaurants in the world. Our mission is to select the truffles with care the best quality white truffles. We pack them the day they come out of the earth. We ship them in refrigerated packaging, so they arrive fresh. Each order includes instructions to better enjoy our “Gold of the Langhe”.

Q: How has Covid-19 affected your business?

A: At the beginning of 2020, we never thought that a virus could change our lives so much. In the first months in lock-down, we did not have white truffles. Then summer came, work resumed and in September the white truffle season finally started. Then another lock-down arrived. We had to assess how we would make our business work, like so many.  Our truffle hunters were out hunting, so we were able to ship every Monday and Tuesday until the end of last year. Lucky for us, we had customers that were ordering although business was definitely affected. We are so grateful for our loyal customers. We are hoping to welcome everyone back this fall. It was a big adjustment, but we are tough and we will be alright.  I believe all of us will be alright.

Q: How has this film impacted your business?

A: The Film was viewed at a few film festivals in 2020. It will be distributed in 2021; look for it online in May. We were lucky that in October  2020, they were able to organize the White Truffle Festival and people from neighboring regions were able to travel.  A Swiss girl in front of my shop recognized me from the film and was thrilled to have found us. She saw the movie at The Zurigo Film Festival. I was very pleased. So the film is slowly starting to circulate. I am sure that once the film is readily available to view, we will enjoy some notoriety. Which obviously I look forward to since it will be great for business.

Q: How did the film impact the people featured in the film?

A: It was all so surreal, the stars of the documentary are humble people from our countryside. They have always lived a simple and quiet life and suddenly they were thrown into the spotlight. Yet I was not surprised they did a great job sharing their rich lives with the filmmakers. It was fun to hear our villagers speaking in dialect during filming. It is such a real slice of our daily life. It is an authentic view of how we work here in the Piedmont. The documentary really highlights the struggles and victories of the truffle hunters and their friends and family. I feel it has never been seen before. The documentary is a beautiful memory for them to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

Q: How long have you been working in the Truffle business?

A: Since I was a child, I have always had truffles in my hands because my mother and her sister started the business with a restaurant that shaved truffles on pasta and risotto. My aunt opened a company of truffle products. My mom started the shop in 1987; she started selling truffles and my aunt’s preserved products. The world of truffles has evolved, and we have as well. Now I run a truffle boutique that is highly successful. My cousins have since taken over running the company that develops and manufactures truffle-infused products. As you can see it’s a family affair. We distribute fresh truffles all over the world, and fresh truffles are sold in our shop as well. I’ve been living on truffles for almost 40 years. As a child, my breakfast was biscuits and truffle milk. Every morning my mother and I went to the truffle hunter’s house to collect the morning truffles, and we would have the freshly picked truffles in the fridge.

Q: I was curious when he said truffle milk so I asked Gianfranco “What truffle milk was?”

A: He told me that in the early years, they had just one refrigerator in the house. So all the truffles for the shop were stored in that fridge. All the food in the fridge became infused with truffle flavor, the eggs, the cheese, and the milk. So when he would drink milk it tasted of truffles. Wild, I love it.

Q: Tell us about some of the special products in your store.

A: The products are constantly evolving year after year. We study new recipes, new colors, and we are always improving to keep up with people’s requests and needs. For some years we have embarked on the path of organic products, gluten-free products, and some vegan, always maintaining the taste and aroma of our truffles. We have created a line of freeze-dried truffles, that is truffle flakes ready to be re-hydrated in hot butter and consumed as fresh almost as good as fresh. I must say that this new line is very popular. We sell most of this product to America, China and Japan. You can eat white truffles at any time of the year by purchasing our dehydrated or preserved products. Our best sellers are white truffle salt best on meat and fish, white truffle powder that can be used on everything, as you would use spices, organic white truffle butter, and white truffle cream. Available online.

My favorite products are the white truffle chocolates and the white truffle potato chips and the dehydrated truffle is crazy good, let’s face it I love it all…except maybe truffle milk, hahaha.

Thank you Gianfranco ci vediamo a presto, can’t wait to see you again. x

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Gianfranco and I in front of his shop

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Me at the Truffle Festival for the first time

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White Truffles for Sale

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the most incredible, 40 egg angel hair pasta heaped with white truffles.

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Gianfranco’s daily haul of white truffles

Here’s the trailer for The Truffle Hunters. I hope you enjoy it.

Look for The Truffle Hunters streaming by mid May 2021.

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The Florentine holiday lights in 2020

IMG_9214 I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to my friend Alexandra Lawrence, when we visit with guests in Florence she is my go to tour guide. She’s one to put into your contacts and make sure to book her early.

I know we all miss travel to Italy, so today I am taking you all to Florence to tour the Holiday Lights in Florence. I’ve invited Florentine Alexandra to join me on the blog as a guest contributor to tell you all about the lights this year. The Holidays lights of Florence are always an exciting subject. In fact she will take us on a virtual tour on Wed. Dec. 9th at Noon ET on my IG LIVE so mark your calendar and be whisked away to Florence to see this year’s holiday lights in Florence.

Take a moment to read as Alexandra explains the meaning behind 2020’s holiday lights.

Take it away Alexandra:

It’s no secret that Italians love to commemorate things. Ceremonies, exhibitions, and conferences are constantly being dedicated to an artist’s 500th birthday or to the 1000th anniversary of a church consecration. Some of the commemorations come and go without much notice (there are a rather lot of them), but others are rightfully treated as a ‘big deal’.

The upcoming celebrations surrounding 700 years of Dante Alighieri are of the latter variety.

Born in 1265 in Florence, the great poet was exiled from the city in a particularly explosive moment of political drama at age 27. Already quite famous for his verses—mostly love poetry—Dante spent the rest of his life wandering the Italian peninsula serving various noble courts. He brought them prestige, and they let him use their libraries.

It was there, in those libraries, where he wrote his epic poem—a journey he claims he actually took down through the underworld, up the mountain of purgatory, and straight-up through the heavens. He called the poem the Comedy. (Another Florentine author one generation removed, Giovanni Boccaccio, would add the superlative ‘Divine’ to the title.)

The Comedy was an immediate smash—copied and recopied, read and re-read out loud for all to hear and to enjoy. As the first epic poem since antiquity to be written in the vernacular, Dante’s journey was meant to be understood by everyone, not just scholars and nobles.

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graphic by Betty Soldi

Dante fills his tale with well-known names from history, from The Bible, from Greek and Roman mythology, but also with contemporary figures—ones that would raise eyebrows and elicit both hidden smiles and out-loud-gasps from readers. It is just one way he ensures that we are there with him, adventuring along with the poet-pilgrim on this terrifying and exhilarating ride.

It is a salvation story and a hero’s journey all rolled into one. It is, Dante tells us, also our story—if we want it to be. Offering a sort of existential road map to a happy ending, the Comedy is proof, to paraphrase Robert Frost, that the best way out is through.

All of us who have lived through this incredibly trying pandemic year know a little something about that kind of resiliency now. It is a truly glorious thing that we can read Dante’s Divine Comedy 700 years after it was written and find that universal truth inside. And that alone is worth celebrating.

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We hope you will join us on Wednesday, December 9th at 12 PM EST, 6 PM CET for on my IG Live for walk through of the Florentine holiday lights, which are dedicated to Dante Alighieri for the very first time.

Alexandra Lawrence is an expert in the language and art of Italy. She has lived in Florence for over 20 years, where she is a lecturer of art history and contemporary Italian cultural studies. While completing her graduate work in Italian Language and Literature, Alexandra concentrated primarily on writers and poets and their relationship to the visual arts—a subject that continues to inform her work.

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Alexandra is an accredited guide for Italian museums and archeological sites, and has worked with several high-profile clients including England’s royal family. Her walks are featured in Condé Nast Traveler as one of the ‘Best 16 Things to Do in Florence’.

In 2020, she founded Forma Sideris, a space to have guided conversations about Italy and its art, literature, culture, and history. She is currently offering a virtual 6-week course on the Divine Comedy which will begin in January 2021. For more on ‘Divine Dante’, please see the course page here.

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