As dozens of Italian towns sell off old houses on the cheap, foreigners who rush to grab one are often in search of a year-round sunshine spot, a vacation retreat, or just to live their Italian dream.
But one American family has done it to start a new life far from the United States.
In 2019, the Dawkins family – Nadine, 59, her husband, Kim, 61, and their children Lorenzo, 29, and DeNae, 27 – bought a charming home in the town of Latronico. In the southern region of Basilicata, the town of 4,000 inhabitants is located within the pristine Pollino National Park and surrounded by hot springs.
Reading the article at her home in El Paso, Texas, Nadine Dawkins, a retired former soldier and businesswoman, felt the pull of her ancestry.
Her great-great-grandfather was Italian and came to America in the 19th century.
“As a soldier stationed in the region many years later, I vowed to return. Years more, my husband and I brought our children over to see where they hailed from.”
Her Italian ancestor took on an American name when he landed in the States: Clint Jeffrey. Nadine doesn’t know much about her great-great-grandmother, Lucinda, who was an enslaved woman on an Arkansas plantation when Jeffrey bought her, and “lived out the rest of his days with her,” she says.
“Unfortunately, I have no additional information about Lucinda. All I know is that she was a slave, and he purchased her. My grandmother and great-grandmother never told me anything else about her. I believe it was because of such atrocities that slavery, and the memories of it had on them; because of course being born in the 1800s and early 1900s was a hard time for all Black people in America.”
The family decided they wanted to leave the US in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd.
“[It] showed the world how we as Black people in America have been treated for centuries,” says Nadine.
“All the racism, all the divisiveness, all the hate that the last administration brought to the forefront” has caused an “exodus” from America of Black people who have the means to do so, she says.
“Basically, police brutality towards Black people, mass shootings from domestic terrorists, and just the overall hate in this country is why we are leaving the USA.”
Their move follows Nadine’s 30-year career in the military, while Kim Dawkins works for the US government.
The family will be shortly moving to Panama before taking the final leap across the Atlantic to Latronico.
Nadine doesn’t know where exactly her ancestor hailed from, but snapping up one of Latronico’s cheap homes seemed like a good way to reconnect with her roots.
“We didn’t expect it – he contacted us the very next day. We set up a video call, he sent us a video of our selected home. That sealed our fate: We bought the house sight unseen, without going to Italy,” she recalls.
‘When something’s right, it’s right’
The Dawkins are grateful they found a dream team in Latronico – Castellano and his assistant Mariangela Tortorella – who helped them navigate the sales process, and found local firms to restyle and furnish their home.
In fact, they trusted Castellano – who launched the housing scheme – so much that they handed him power of attorney for all technical issues, as well as the translation of the purchase deed into English.
Their house in Latronico’s historic quarter required little renovation to fit their needs, although the exterior got a fresh coat of paint.
The three-story home belonged to an “upper crust” villager, as Nadine describes the woman, who had elegantly decorated it with pieces of antique furniture.
The former owner left two beds, a wardrobe and “trinkets” including porcelain cups.
The family added two bathrooms, since all old houses in Latronico just have one. There are two bedrooms, a kitchen which they enlarged into a huge dining room, and an underground cellar.
Bug screens were added to all the windows, and the panoramic balconies overlooking the main church were spruced up to better enjoy morning espresso and evening aperitivo.
“We picked it immediately and started the paperwork – when something is right it’s right. No hiccups,” says Nadine.
The property deeds were signed in 2021, and the total final cost for the house was 42,000 euros ($46,700).
“Vincenzo’s team made the whole process very easy. I trust them with my life and call them ‘my nephews.’ If there’s any issue, I can rely on them,” she says. The family has hired Castellano as their property manager.
Doing it all alone would have been tough.
“On my own I could see the issues I would have run into – for instance, the language barrier. They acted as spearheads.”
Nadine wants to boost language exchange by teaching English to local youths once she moves to Latronico, and aims to help put the village more on the map.
“We love the people,” she says. “We’ve never met one single mean person, everyone offers coffee. One day we met a villager in a store and became like best friends – he took us to his house for espresso, even though I don’t even drink coffee.”
Building a new life
During visits, the Dawkins have appreciated the slower-paced lifestyle, sitting at the front door and watching people stroll by or listening to cats fighting in the otherwise silent alleys.
For now, they plan to spend six months a year in Italy (using the “90 days in every 180 days” rule that non-EU citizens must abide by) then apply for a permanent “elective residency” visa which requires a certain annual amount of passive income. The rest of their time will be spent in Panama.
Ultimately they want to acquire Italian citizenship.
Once in Italy, Nadine hopes to be able to start tracking down the real identity and origins of her Italian ancestor. She has no clue where exactly in Italy he came from but keeps an old photo of him in a thick wooden frame.
Of Lucinda – whose last name must have been the name of the plantation she was enslaved at, Nadine believes – she says that “Black American history has been lost” or eradicated from American culture.
“We need to get out of America, so we leave. The US is a divided and a very divisive country, voting rights are being rolled back and Black history is undone. I’m tired,” says Nadine.
Kim, meanwhile, says that the only challenge in Latronico was overcoming language barriers, and getting used to the isolation.
“People are patient for me to use my translator each time, and the village is remote so you really need a vehicle to move around beyond the places within walking distance,” he says.
“But the great thing is that even at night you can leave the keys in the door. It’s a quiet, safe place that gives peace of mind.”