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Seeking Sanctuary 'Under the Tuscan Sun'
Couple Bids Farewell to Noe Valley and Retires to Italy
By Steve Steinberg
A few decades ago, before large-scale tourism and development took hold, Tahiti and the South Pacific were seen as a paradise on earth, the place where the world-weary could escape modern life.
Today, for many Americans and Europeans, the refuge of choice is rural Italy, especially Tuscany and Umbria in the central part of the country.
Among those who have been unable to resist the lure of Italy are Noe Valley residents Stephen and Marilyn Johnston. Last month, Stephen, an architect, and Marilyn, an attorney, packed up their things and left their 28th Street house for a village in eastern Tuscany that they will call their new home.
"We needed to reinvent ourselves somewhere else," Stephen, 54, says.
The high cost of living in San Francisco, especially during their impending retirement, was a major factor in the Johnstons' decision to move. "We realized we could not afford to live like we wanted in the United States," says Stephen. The couple also were tired of the noise and traffic congestion, and the violence plaguing most American cities. Nor did they want to just leave San Francisco for the suburbs, where it might cost a little less to live. "We're not suburban people," Stephen says. "We either like the countryside or the city."
Perhaps most importantly, the Johnstons felt that the United States could not adequately nourish their love of art.
"Art is so much more accessible in Italy," Johnston says. "It's all around you. You don't have to go to a major metropolitan center to see it."
Picturesque Village Amid Olive Trees
The Johnstons had been visiting Italy periodically since the late 1980s. On one occasion, following a reader's tip in the Sunday travel section of the San Francisco Chronicle, they visited the village of Valuberti, population 20 (yes, 20), located about 60 miles from Florence in Tuscany's Arezzo province.
The couple found themselves "enchanted" with the place, which was replete with olive trees, vineyards, rolling hills, and rustic stone houses dating from the Middle Ages. "It sang to us," recalls Johnston. They decided to spend a month there, immersing themselves in rural Italian life.
The people of Valuberti completely charmed the couple. "They were wonderful and welcoming," Stephen says, "introducing us to all their friends in the valley."
The Johnstons also admired the town's communal spirit. "People share gardens, make wine together, and meet in small piazzas to discuss events," says Stephen, noting that Valuberti was a sort of art colony back in the 1960s.
"People care about each other more," adds Marilyn, who praises the town's strong family atmosphere.
The couple soon became fast friends with the locals, revisiting Valuberti once or twice a year for several years.
Leaving Behind Their S.F. Careers
In the meantime, Stephen continued to practice architecture in Noe Valley, successfully running his own business, while his wife became a partner in a Bay Area law firm. Many of Stephen's projects were in and around Noe Valley, and he prided himself on being a "neighborhood architect." Originally from Boston, Stephen moved to the Bay Area in 1985. Marilyn hails from New Jersey.
In the 1990s, the couple bought a home on Fair Oaks Street and spent five years renovating it in great detail, doing much of the physical work themselves. They sold the house last year in anticipation of the move to Italy and rented a house on 28th Street while they prepared to leave this spring.
During their years in Noe Valley, they really "enjoyed the diversity" of the neighborhood and the city, Stephen says. In fact, he still considers San Francisco the only place he'd want to live in the United States. He acknowledges they're going to miss a few restaurants, "like Incanto on Church Street, but most of all, [we'll miss] our friends and Fair Oaks Street neighbors."
Barn Escapes Being Labeled a Ruin
But back in Valuberti, opportunity was knocking. In February of 2001, an old, uninhabited barn, originally built in the 12th century, came up for sale, and the Johnstons, who did not have children or strong family ties in the United States, decided to make an offer.
Stephen says that while real estate brokers exist in Italy, it is quite common to negotiate directly with the seller, which is what the Johnstons did. Four months later, the five-room, 1,500-square-foot house, which came with five acres, belonged to them. Stephen says the final sale price was the cost of a good kitchen remodel in Noe Valley. Making the deal even sweeter was the fact that property taxes were only about $200 a year.
(Before you decide to sell your Noe Valley home and rush off to join the Johnstons in Tuscany, it might be well to note that they bought their property right before the euro replaced the Italian lira and most other national currencies in western Europe. Since that conversion and the accompanying dramatic decline in the U.S. dollar, property values have gone sky-high in Tuscany, with many homes and apartments costing almost as much as in the Bay Area.)
The property's former owner was a German, who had owned the building for many years but had done little to keep it in good repair. "It was almost ready to fall down," Stephen says. The couple bought it just in the nick of time. If it had fallen down or if, say, the roof had collapsed, the building would have been declared a ruin, and, notes Johnston, "ruins are just as legitimate as houses in Italy," especially in the countryside, and are prohibited from being restored.
But before a decrepit structure reaches the point where it is declared a ruin, it can be salvaged. So the Johnstons spent a year and a half converting this crumbling medieval barn into their new home. They hired local stone masons, plasterers, and roofers to do the work. The notion of a general contractor does not exist in Italy, Stephen says. "The owner is always the general contractor."
Modern Perks in a Medieval Setting
The entire project was done in Italian, even though the Johnstons had yet to achieve mastery of the language--"we've studied at City College," Stephen smiles. But architectural drawings are universal, he says. Besides, the workmen possessed such a high level of skill that he merely had to provide them with the design concept and then let them run with it. "They would do things they thought we would like."
For instance, Stephen wanted an arch separating two rooms. The workmen built him an arch, but they enhanced its appearance by using ancient Roman brick found on the site and restored. The workers were true artisans, Stephen says. Plus, all that skilled labor cost only about a third of what it would have cost here.
Although the Johnstons will reside in a structure built in the Middle Ages, they will not have to return to a medieval lifestyle. "We have taken the old as a device to live in a modern way," Stephen says, pointing out that their new house will have all the comforts and conveniences that technology brings. "We will still have technology, but in a more peaceful environment."
Low Taxes and Free Health Care
The Johnstons realized they would have to make certain financial sacrifices to retire early and move out of the United States. But they felt the freedom they would gain was worth having to budget their spending. They plan to live off their investments, which in Italy are taxed at a rate of about 10 percent. They will also have to pay U.S. taxes, but are then given credit by the Italian government on the amount paid to the United States. In addition, they will receive completely free health care when they become residents, even though they will not be giving up their U.S. citizenship.
Once they settle into their new life, the Johnstons are confident they will have more than enough to do to keep busy. "You could not exhaust Italy in terms of what there is to see in a lifetime," says Marilyn. And, she adds, "you don't have to make $200,000 a year to enjoy the culture. It's just there."
Her husband would like to develop a vineyard on their property and construct a stone outbuilding. He also wants to grow and cook their own food. "It will be nice to eat something without plastic around it." He says he will not miss "popular" American culture, except perhaps films.
Marilyn, 56, plans to paint, garden, and do landscaping. She also wants "70- something Lucia, who lives at the bottom of the hill, to teach me how to make flat bread."
Most of all, she plans to just enjoy her retirement. "I intend to live my life without a list," she says.
So that she can feel more a part of the community, Marilyn is determined to become fluent in Italian as rapidly as possible. "It's a bit isolating to be an outsider," she admits, "but it can be overcome."
The Johnstons say they have no plans to return to the United States from Italy, although they concede one never knows what will happen in the future. They hope to have a lot of visits from friends in the United States and have drawn up local maps to help guests find their way.
"We have allowed ourselves to make this mindset change," Stephen says. "Everything else will fall into place." m