Meeting Seattle’s “senior nomads” in Florence

Airbnb hopping around the world

Imagine leaving your hometown, selling your belongings, and setting out on a never-ending adventure around the globe, with no end in sight to your travels. It sounds like the stuff of dreams, but it is what ordinary life looks like for Michael and Debbie Campbell, the self-dubbed “Senior Nomads” from Seattle.

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They have been travelling the world since Summer 2013, having retired, sold their car and sailboat, reduced their possessionsand they are staying in Airbnbs each time to feel like locals and get a feel of every place they choose to visit. 

Their criteria for their apartments are few: they should be in town, equipped with WiFi and preferably with an open space. The couple have just finished writing a book about their experience as guests: it is a book for Airbnb hosts, a welcome read for those looking to open their homes to people visiting their town. 

Having the couple write this book is a wise choice: the “Senior Nomads” vaunt over 100 glowing reviews from hosts on their Airbnb profile, repeating words such as “charming” and “generous”their travels have seen them bond with their hosts and make a variety of friends around the world, as well as giving speeches at Airbnb conferences.

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Visiting the Airbnb offices 

When I met with Michael and Debbie on a sunny Monday in Florence, they were celebrating their 120th stay at an Airbnb.

Debbie and Michael are no strangers to Tuscany’s capoluogo. Michael used to work in sports marketing and spent many a day at Florence’s Ugolino golf course back in 1988/89. They stayed in the Santo Spirito area the first time they came to a Florentine Airbnb, whereas this time round, their pied-à-terre is in a Porta Romana building“more of a walk, but we like it that way”. When I ask them what compelled them to come back, Debbie’s eyes light up: “Well, there’s just no other place like Florence, is there? The art, the history… it’s unique, you know?”

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Debbie in Florence

Italy is my favorite country. There, I’ve said it. Everyone asks me that question and I have skirted the answer in the same way I avoid naming my favorite child.

When pressed about what it is that makes Florence so special, Debbie is almost incapable of putting her finger on it. “No other city in Italy has such history, such an atmosphere, you can breathe in it as you walk down the roads of this town”, she smiles, as Michael nods in agreement.

On this second visit, they have visited the Uffizi for the first time and been to see Fiorentina play against Milan. The Campbells aren’t fans of guidebooks and tourist trails: in every city, they wander the streets, waiting for a city’s surprises to spring upon them. “We found a gorgeous little theatre when staying in the Santo Spirito area and remember that lampredotto panino we found.”

In fact, in their opinion, it’s the tourist attractions that are often underwhelming: Debbie was not particularly impressed by the Leonardo da Vinci museum. The quieter areas of town, they believe, should be explored by tourists, such as the Boboli gardens, as tourists whizz by failing to notice its entrance just after Porta Romana.

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The Oltrarno area, near Porta Romana

In the same way that the Campbell couple does not adhere to the guidebook rules every visitor sticks by, they live as locals, rather than splurging on holidayshopping in town, cooking their own foodand this extends to their use of the expat network. When asked about their use of it, they seem to be surprised this should be a necessity: occasionally they’ll have Facebook conversations in groups of expats, but rarely will they rely on the network. One of the things they think makes Florence stands out against other Italian cities, besides its approachable locals and its hilly views, is its size. “It’s a good place to walk in,” Michael says. “You can get around very easily, although the public transport isn’t as frequent as we thought it would be.”

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The couple budgets carefully, and keeps track of each visit and expenditure in a journal

To prove this point, they tell me of their experience in coming back from a football match at the Artemio Franchi. It proved to be an eye-opening cultural experience for the Nomads: they were as surprised at the lack of transport (“I’d definitely warn a future visitor about that!”) as they were moved by the enthusiasm of the purple Fiorentina crowd. Michael shakes his head, “There was maybe one bus!” he laughs, and then proceeds to show me a piece of paper their host handed them. On it, in Italian, it states, “Please help me get a taxi back to Porta Romana. I have a hip replacement!” As they laugh, they reminisce about the fact they bought their suitcase scales in Florence. “It saved our marriage, really,” Debbie jokes. “I’d definitely count that amongst one of the moments that stands out in my mind.”

The Nomads ventured out of Florence in the past to see places such as San Gimignano and Siena, too. Debbie used to be a graphic designer and is enthusiastic about the colour palette that Florence and Tuscany boast. “Siena has darker tones, Florence has pastel marbles, such beautiful colours to offer.” Thinking back to the geometrical lines that wind around the entirety of the Duomo, and its gorgeous dark green tones, I can’t help but nod.

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“We’ve been to many other cities in Italy, 39 altogether,” Michael adds. “I’d say we’ve well and truly worn the boot of this country!” He shows me a list, with every city lined up next to boxes headed “Overnight” and “Airbnb”the boxes aren’t ticked at all if it was a passing visit or just for a day, some have a single cross. But Florence ticks both boxes.

I am sure we will be back to Italy because this boot fits really, really well

I’m curious to know what their advice would be to newbies in Florence who would also be renting out an Airbnb property: “There will be stairs! Be prepared,” Debbie laughs. She adds, “You shouldn’t judge a property from the outside. They look sometimes as though they’re not in great shape, but the interiors may surprise you.”

The Campbells have no doubt what their words for Florence are, when I ask them to pick three each to describe the town.

“Beautiful. The right size. A little bit mysterious, too!” Debbie says.

Michael, after some thinking, allows Debbie to interject for him.

“Surprising, friendly!” she smiles, and before she can think of a third one, he smiles, and simply says, “Enchanting”.

 

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