Robert Nordvall

Dolce retirement in Pistoia

Sarah Humphreys
July 12, 2012

It is probably fair to say that majority of expats come to live in Italy for work or romantic reasons. Robert Nordvall is quite a different case. Nordvall, known locally as Bob, was born in the Chicago area. The family of his mother, Carmella Craglione, was originally from Luccare, now known as Basilicata. Nordvall graduated from De Pauw University in 1962 with a degree in philosophy and religion. He then went on to study at Harvard Law School. After working as an attorney, he held various positions at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, including dean of first-year students and associate provost. Upon his retirement, in 2002, he decided to go in search of adventure and retire to Italy.



Having studied Italian for two years at Gettysburg College, Nordvall came on holiday to Lucca in 2001. On a day trip to Pistoia, he was immediately impressed by the beauty of piazza del Duomo and began to consider the possibility of moving there. Pistoia may not seem like an obvious choice for retirement, but the size and location appealed, as did the fact that Pistoia is being and less expensive than Florence.


After much careful planning, Nordvall returned to Pistoia in June 2002 to look for an apartment and made his final move in September 2002. Rather unusually, he travelled by merchant ship in order to be able to bring his belongings. The journey took 11 days and there were only two other passengers on board.


Since his arrival, Nordvall has published a weekly online newsletter, ‘This week in Italy' ( It began as a way of keeping in touch with friends but has developed into a commentary on his experiences and observations of life in Italy. He updates his blog every Friday, and has written numerous articles for The Florentine. He is also a member of the Vestry at St. James Episcopal Church in Florence.


Nordvall is quite at home in Pistoia but goes back to the States to see one of his sons, who lives in Los Angeles, and do some things he did not have the chance to do while he lived there. For example, a keen cyclist, he is planning a cycling tour of the Oregon coast this summer.




Where would you take visitors on a first trip to Pistoia?


I always take people to see four specific things: The beautiful statue of the visitation in San Giovanni church, the silver altar by in the Cathedral, the incredible pulpit by Giovanni Pisano in Sant' Andrea Church and the ceramic glaze frieze by Della Robbia at the Ospedale del Ceppo.


Where would you take a guest who doesn't like art?


To see the extraordinary eighteenth-century Fabrioniana Library or for a walk around the lake in the Puccini Park.


Can you name a place in town that makes you happy or inspires you?


Nothing tops the lovely piazza del Duomo. When I first saw it, I decided to move to Pistoia.


What is your favourite traditional dish and where would you eat it?


I don't have a specific favourite dish, but Le Zie del Lampredotto in via IV Novembre serves only local specialities. I also recommend Trattoria dell'Abbondanza in via dell' Abbondanza.


Where would you recommend going for an aperitivo in Pistoia? For coffee?


Voronoui in piazzetta dell'Ortaggio. Bang in via della Madonna for coffee and the American-style cakes.


What's your favourite day-trip from Pistoia?


The train journey through the mountains to Porretta Terme.


What advice would you give someone thinking of moving to Italy?


Don't come here thinking you'll find a job. Plan ahead and research your economic possibilities. Read up on Italian culture. Be prepared to deal with things that might annoy you, such as public transport not necessarily being reliable. However, you will find that Italians are nice, friendly people.


What's the most difficult aspect of Italian life to get used to?


Inefficiency. I was prepared for it, having done my background reading. Nevertheless, it can be very frustrating. Being retired, I am not usually in a rush, which makes it easier to tolerate long waits.


What do you think is the biggest difference between Italians and Americans?


The balance between the heart and the mind is different. The level of sentimentality is much higher here. This was seen recently with the emotional reaction to Lucio Dalla's death.


What advantages do you have as a retired person in Italy?


I did not come to Italy as a low-cost retirement place. Prices in Italy and the United States are quite similar. One can live without a car in Italy, which is only possible in a few cities in the United States, so transportation costs are lower here. I enrolled in the Tuscan health system, which includes full coverage and medication and saves money. Senior discounts are available on public transport, the cinema, etc., although these are common in the States, too. I enjoy life in Italy.


Who's your favourite Tuscan, past or present?


Roberto Benigni.


What is your favourite Italian phrase?


‘Non importa.' I think it sums up most general concepts.

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