A second home in Italy? It’s the dream. For married couple Marco Cavalli and Sunaina (known as Suni) Lobo of Oaklandh, California, it became a reality over a year ago.
When coronavirus lockdowns seemed to put living that dream on indefinite hold, Cavalli and Lobo didn’t give up on finding a way to spend much-needed time with family and friends this summer in idyllic Valle d’Itria in the Puglia region of southern Italy.
Cavalli, whose family is from northern Italy, was very concerned as Covid-19 began to take hold in the region. He and Lobo, who began sheltering in place at their California home in March, figured that things would calm down in time for them to return to Puglia this summer. As months went on, however, the couple worried and wondered about whether they should risk going to Italy, especially as cases in California began to spike in July.
Dreams can come true
“Puglia has always been a destination for me, since I was a teenager. I always had the dream of buying a place here,” said Cavalli. The area of Villa d’Itria, where their home is located, is charming with hills, olive trees and wine and is not far from the coast. Cavalli’s Italian parents did the groundwork, locating the home they purchased about 18 months ago.
“There was a little bit of red tape, so it took much longer than we thought it would. But in the end, it’s been a beautiful purchase. We were just saying the other day, we’re so glad we did it,” Lobo said from a scenic perch outside the home.
“It’s a place where we can meet with family and friends,” Cavalli said. “And obviously, I have a lot of connections [in Italy], but also Suni has family in Spain. So, this is like a bit of a central place for everyone.”
Lobo continues, “Since we bought the place, we’ve had several friends of [ours] from the US, from the north of Italy, from other parts of the world, come and stay. We don’t want to Airbnb it out. We don’t want to rent it out. We wanted it to be a family home where people can come and enjoy it.”
The pandemic journey
As spring turned to summer, they were still hopeful they would be in Puglia at some point. But Cavalli watched from afar as his family in northern Italy faced the worse of the pandemic.
Then it seemed that much of the rest of the world was making headway toward recovery, or at least flattening the spread, while US cases kept rising, particularly in California.
“I had not seen my parents for many months. When things started to get better [in Italy], we thought this is the opportunity, because I don’t know if in the fall it comes back and there’s another lockdown.”
Cavalli and Lobo have had to work from home since March and figured that it would be feasible to do the same in Italy, even with the challenge of managing multiple time zones.
“We didn’t see any [end in] sight in the US unfortunately, even though we were sheltering at home for such a long time. So that’s when Marco took over and he was like, ‘I need to get out,’ ” Lobo said.
They did a bit of research because “we were both very nervous about traveling, flying,” said Cavalli. “We didn’t know how things [would] work with quarantine. We didn’t know how, you know, who could come because I’m a citizen that she’s not even though she’s my wife”
Eventually the two decided to risk it. “We also had some friends who had come before us, and they were fine. So we thought, OK, we have, we’re not the only crazy ones.”
Travel in the age of coronavirus
The couple flew to London, where they had to show their marriage certificate before being allowed to board the flight to Milan. Lobo, who was raised in India, carries an Australian passport, while Cavalli holds an Italian passport. “There was some paperwork. The Italian government has some forms to fill out before you fly. Puglia, specifically, has other documentations that they require,” said Cavalli.
Lobo was struck by how different the flying was when they left San Francisco. “SFO is such a busy airport, it was surreal. No one was there.”
They wore masks constantly, and the flight to London was pretty empty, with mostly Europeans returning home. US travelers are banned from entering the EU — and the UK requires Americans to quarantine for 14 days.
Once they arrived in Milan, they rented a car, drove south and began their quarantine.
When they got there, according to Lobo, Puglia had only a handful of active cases, and those numbers were low because they locked down early and enforced quarantine. Unlike the US, you couldn’t come and go freely.
Quarantining in Puglia
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Cavalli. “The health department called us immediately, asked us questions like ‘How are you feeling?’ and confirmed our data. They said they would send someone to test us in seven days.”
Donning PPE, health officials came to their home, tested the two of them and left immediately. Officials called to check in regularly, until the 14 days were up, and the couple were officially free to enjoy their holiday.
“The whole experience was very, very nice and nobody, and that’s the key difference from the US, nobody asked for a credit card. Nobody asks for insurance, nobody asks for anything. I was the one saying, ‘Hey, do we need to pay for this?’ And they said no,” said Cavalli of the testing.
“It was absolutely easy, and the results came back the next morning.”
Lobo said she knows it’s not the same all over Italy, but their experience with testing and quarantine in Puglia was amazing. She found the care, the consistency of the communication to be unlike anything she’d seen in the US.
“It was not economics. It was public health,” said Lobo.
Living it up at last
Free after quarantine, the couple went out but still felt a bit worried. Cavalli explained, “After six months of no people, it was strange to be out and about in such a normal way,” even with people wearing masks and social distancing.
“We went to the beach, and it was pretty packed,” said Lobo. “So we got a spot away from everyone else. We were not used to it. We went for a swim and got out.”
That said, the couple has enjoyed their time, cooking, visiting with family and friends and getting a taste of what they’d hoped for when they bought the house in the first place.
“Puglia is like Tuscany 30 years ago,” Cavalli says.
Lobo agrees, “It is pretty untouched. It’s a little gem. We love the rustic aspect of it.”
As the clock winds down on their stolen summer season, the experience of spending August in a place that means so much to them — even during a global pandemic — was overall very positive.
But it hasn’t been easy managing work with so many time zones in play.
“Marco’s work is pretty much in the US time zone, so you can start late and end late,” said Lobo. “I have teams globally, so it seems like I’m doing a 24 hour shift, and it’s just nonstop. That was quite exhausting.”
So while the party’s nearly over, the couple are content to return to the United States. “We’ve been lucky,” Lobo said.
In the future, they hope to live off the land, by making and selling olive oil from the olive trees on their property — they just made a big batch from last October’s harvest that they’re trying to decide how to distribute.
“Marco said this would be a good retirement plan,” Lobo said. She smiled and added “not that we’re really thinking about retirement yet.”