Lifestyle & Culture

For expat architect Keith Gibson, his home is his castle

Credit Acme

Castello di Vestignana

For American expat architec Keith Gibson, an Italian castle became more than a picture on a postcard.

If you Google “Castello di Vestignana,” you’ll find several short Youtube videos of a charming 12th century stone castle in the hills of Italy’s Marche region along the Adriatic coast.

What the videos don’t say is that [a] the castle is currently inhabited; and [b] by an American expat architect.

A Medieval castle may not be the future for every expat who relocates to Europe – although Forbes says the EU’s debt crisis has led to high mortgage default rates and a glut of available historic inventory and a lack of buyers.

Gibson’s story is instructive as a way Americans can slide into opportunities in European culture to find great jobs, exciting lifestyles and maybe that occasional castle for sale.

Gibson, a Californian studying architecture at Cal State Poly, was awarded a scholarship to spend his fifth academic year in Florence. At the end of the year, he traveled throughout Europe until he was out of money and needed a part-time job to pay his rent while he raised the airfare back to the States.

Italians are great believers in “destino.” To pay his expenses, Gibson taught English in a local high school, then began giving private lessons. One of his students was director of R&D for Poltrona Frau, the luxury Italian
furniture maker and auto supply firm that makes the leather seating for all Porsches.

“One day, he invited me to the company headquarters and showed me where they were trying to develop a new office chair for high-end interiors,” says Gibson. “He suggested I make a design proposal for a chair for a broader international market. The following week, I was offered a job.”

Now comfortably employed in Italy, he created some side businesses around design-build solutions for high-end interiors and also restoration of historic buildings.

He also met Laura, who worked in the Italian fashion industry and shared his passion for cycling. They stumbled on their castle during a mountain bike ride.

Fifty thousand euros for the purchase price, and 400,000 euros-plus in renovations later, the major part of the restoration is done.

The locals are all very keen on keeping the castle in order and preserved for future generations, “so we had a lot of support,” he adds. “It took us more than 10 years to do the renovations and make the castle functional for today’s standards of living, but we think it has been worth it.

“The market value according to the bank is about double the money spent,” Gibson told Dispatches. “Laura and I started this adventure nearly 20 years ago!

He now works for Grottini Retail Environments as a designer and draftsman for the manufacturer of retail fixture and shelving systems. It’s an international industry, and Gibson’s familiarity with American culture, habits and, not least, language makes him invaluable for the growing, family-owned company that does business throughout Europe, the Middle East, Dubai, India and, increasingly, the United States.

English may be the international business language, but the level at which it is spoken drops off considerably from board rooms to everyday business situations to buying groceries, ordering food and dealing with the guy who’s come to fix the plumbing.

Though Gibson now is fluent in Italian, he admits it wasn’t an easy transition for him. But being young and single when he started his European adventure helped.

“The younger you start, the easier it is,” he says. “Your mind just seems more open to the challenges and difficulties. But being single might help, as well. Finding an indigenous partner surely accelerates the learning curve.

“She can ease your way through tricky conversations, ordering a meal in a restaurant, reading directional signs on the road.”

But life is about more than learning to order the right meal.

Even in Italy.

“Perhaps the best thing about living and working in Europe today is that the world is getting smaller and smaller so it makes sense to get out of your own backyard and see what the rest of the world is doing,” says Gibson.

“For sure, the cultural richness can only add to your capacity to reason through challenging problems and find alternative solutions.

“Living in Europe can be quite advantageous for jumping from one continent to another if your scope of work is already global.

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