Former San Antonio Couple On Their Life In Northern Italy | Texas Public Radio

Former San Antonio Couple On Their Life In Northern Italy

Mar 24, 2020

Italy has borne some of the worst results of the Coronavirus outbreak. Hundreds are dying every day there, with more cases in the country's far north.

TPR connected with a former San Antonio couple who live in Florence. Jim Samsel and wife Marty vacationed in Italy two years running and loved it enough to stay.

"After spending a month in Florence we came back the next year and stayed for seven weeks. And we got things together and moved here with nine suitcases," he said. 

They now live in the heart of old Florence with its narrow streets, red tile roofs, restaurants, piazzas and universities all around them. In the nearly three years since they got there he says Italy has performed as they had hoped.

"The food, the culture, the architecture. La dolce vita,” he said.  

But not long ago they began hearing about the novel coronavirus and, before long, about how it was spreading quickly in northern Italy, north of Florence.  

"It all happened very quickly,” he said. “A week ago Wednesday, last Wednesday was the last day we went out to lunch, and that's a big deal for us." 

Jim Samsel and wife Marty vacationed in northern Italy a couple of years ago and decided to stay. Amid the chaos of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, the Samsels are doing just fine and intend to stay.
Credit Jim Samsel

Samsel said restaurants and coffee bars put masking tape on the floors to signify where people could stand, thereby leaving personal space. Suddenly though, Italy closed most everything down.

"Now the only thing that's open is grocery stores, pharmacy and tobacco shops, though, some enterprising, delivery people are getting some food out," he said.

Despite all the restaurants being shut down Samsel doesn't feel the pain others may feel.

"My wife's a wonderful cook and she just keeps bringing good stuff out of the kitchen. And I'm very content with that," he said.

The trips to the grocery store have changed too. Their local grocery is just a couple of blocks away, and last time they went, they saw a curious sight.

"There was an attendant, a gentleman with a mask at the door, that was beckoning people in as people came out," Samsel said.

Customers were kept waiting outside until inside customers left. That way, it never got crowded inside. Outside, people waited in lines, or queues.

"And everyone queued up, without argument, without problem. It was quite startling,” he said. “No fights over position. No conflict."

While he's had little close contact with others, neighbors speak off of balconies and out their windows.

"We're first floor, which would be second floor in [the] U.S. And we open up windows to the street," he said.

The street below is often teeming with students, but not now.

"It's a little eerie because this neighborhood in this street is normally full of American semester abroad students. That was really the first big things when they left," he said. 

You may have seen the inspiring youtube footage of Italians singing to one another off balconies.

Italians can't be with one another, shoulder-to-shoulder. But these impromptu  balcony performances provide a kind of shared experience they haven't been getting.

"It's kind of made the piazza the public space everywhere," he said.

Samsel describes how social media has spawned many interesting events in recent days.

"There have been notices going out on social media, like ‘Everybody take a candle out to their window or their balcony,’ or ‘Everyone sing the national anthem at nine o'clock on a certain day,’" Samsel said.

"And it's quite moving," he said. 

Jim Samsel plays guitar and ukulele, and wife Marty made a suggestion.  

"My wife said, ‘Play Over the Rainbow or something.’ It was her suggestion," he said.

Although Italy continues to suffer – they have taken over as the location with the most COVID-19 deaths per day – Samsel says he's been impressed with the  Italians who seem to be pulling in the same direction to get Coronavirus under control.

"There's people still alive that remember post-World War II hardships here. And their instinct to pull together, I think is really strong,” he said.   

He’s hoping Italy is rounding the corner and, in a few weeks, will begin a slow return to normalcy.

Their cat 'Tino, which is short for Signore Rossotino
Credit Jim Samsel

“Well, hopefully the new cases will well drop off because of the social distancing and the complicated thing they're talking about, the flattening (of) the curve will occur," he said.

Jim and Marty plan to ride this out, and then stay right where they are.

“Everybody's been just great to us and very warm and accepting."


Jack Morgan can be reached at and on Twitter at @JackMorganii.