Since living in Italy since 2007 —I have definitely gone through my own personal ups and downs adjusting to life in beautiful Florence. Because it happens to be a city full of American students, expats, and foreigners, a common misconception is that if you fall under one of those categories, life will flow easily since you are so close to your counterparts. Sometimes I think us English-speakers would have a more meaningful time and speak more Italian if we were in a smaller town surrounded by only Italian speakers etc. However that being said, I am just as addicted to this city of art as everyone else and can’t imagine living anywhere else, at least not right now.
For me at least, this is sometimes true and but more often not. Life long-term in another country can come with all sorts of unexpected challenges and what matters more is how you deal with it. This is why instead of titling this blog post “10 tips,” I decided to focus on some common mistakes people make (ie: me ) when they decide to stay in Italy.
Being overly defensive
I think it’s quite easy when talking to someone from another culture to become stereotyped/and or stereotype others while being overly sensitive especially regarding topics that relate to where you’re from.
Perhaps because it can sometimes feel as if you’re being “observed” and you may often find yourself as the “go-to” person anytime an Italian friend/acquaintance has a question about America, Canada, Australia..etc etc.
I have seen friends become a little defensive when an Italian challenges any viewpoint they have grown up to believe was 100% true even if the comments have been made in jest or even out of pure curiosity.
I know from personal experience, especially being that I happen to be from a place that everyone has an opinion, Texas, how hard it is not to take things to heart when people make strong assumptions about where you’re from without ever having been there.
One key part of adapting (and just to keep yourself mentally sane) is to be able to take what people say with a grain of salt and remember that a successful discourse involves getting your point across without making an enemy. You don’t want to be labeled as over-sensitive and defensive when trying to adapt to a new country and make friends. That isn’t to say that you need to give up having an opinion. I just think it is important to remember that humans at times put their feet in their mouths (heck I know I have) and we have to sometimes forgive these mistakes.
Refusing to properly learn the language
I want to point out that learning Italian is not going to solve all of your problems but it would be nice to understand what your problems actually are — linguistically speaking.
In touristy cities like Florence, Rome, Venice, and Amalfi, it is more than possible to “get-by” without actually being fluent in Italian.
But my question is, why would you want to?
I myself suck at languages and have made all sorts of really embarrassing mistakes (and I still do be careful when you say the word “fig” in Italian) but I am fluent in Italian. Perfectly? Not always, but it is a forever process for some.
Yes, it truly changed my life in the sense I was able to crack jokes, be understood, and have real discussions beyond “where are you from” thus feeling much more connected to my local community.
If you’re scared to talk to people how can you ever expect to improve your language skills? I also wouldn’t underestimate the power of language while having to deal with telecom’s famous customer service, your cell-phone company, or any situation that could essentially be frustrating like a ‘fun’ trip to the questura.
I recommend checking out this post on the blog with tips from a local organizer of a fun multilingual Meetup. A great way to meet new people and practice your Italian (or French, or English).
I know how easy it is to connect to the internet, stream your favorite shows, and skype with your family rather than leaving your house. I have days when that’s all I feel like doing after work or a week filled with several uber-fun trips to the Questura.
But it can be a downward spiral if you get into the habit of isolating yourself from people and don’t make the very important effort to make new friends. Obviously, it is going to take time, and courage, to put yourself out there but no-one is going to come to you unless your lucky and have people there who can introduce you to the town.
Look for a new store opening, local book-club, open-mic night, language exchange groups (all of which you can find in my monthly event’s lists!), these are just a few ways to meet people.
Keep in mind too that Italians can be very shy and likely already have their own friends from as far back as nursery school. So, to help break the ice just invite them over for dinner at your house, out for un Caffe or host an international pot-luck. Everyone loves food and since it means people are bringing different dishes, it’s perfect for your pocketbook too.
Say yes to every invitation, at least in the beginning, and put yourself out there. It will be very worth it in the end. I always think personally that if you focus on why people don’t come to you, you’re thinking about it in the wrong way. Just consider that you will have to make more of an effort and make peace with that.
Too-dependent on their native-born partner
Another common assumption is that if you have an Italian boyfriend or girlfriend that you’re instantly able to get around easily, find a job, make friends, and 100% integrate.
If only that was the case, instead you can expect some cultural misunderstandings and can often resent your Italian or foreign partner because of an overwhelming feeling of dependence; when most likely you have been a very independent person in your home country.
The answer is to make your own activities like joining a yoga class, running errands on your own (practicing the local language), and getting a hobby.
Establish a one day a week outing with a friend or two, volunteer ( here is a great article in The Florentine on this in Florence), learn how to drive, and trust me, it makes such a huge difference.
I recently went on a long weekend with friends to the Island of Elba a few weeks ago and we drove ourselves. Needless to say, it felt very liberating. 5 girls, one car, a ferry ride later, and we were on top of the world. No help was needed or wanted but plenty of laughs were had!
Being scared to open a bank account
This I just don’t really understand since it was a lot easier than I imagined it to be and you can even get special accounts where you don’t pay a lot and can take care of everything online (like paying bills or traffic fines).
I can’t imagine just pulling money out of an ATM for the rest of my life or even more than a year, or wiring money to pay my student loans if I make money here.
Just open a bank account somewhere you trust and get a bancomat card.
It’s easier and when you get a job you want to have your salary direct-deposited. The last thing you should do is keep large sums of money in your house. Violent crime is rare in Italy but petty crime is not and it’s just not worth the risk.
There are options if you want to keep costs low, for example, an online account which allows you a fixed number of visits at any local branch or an account at the Post office, in Italian called postpay, which is a great alternative.
Keep in mind that because of FACTA the local bank will have to report your account to the USA (if you are an American citizen) so it pays to be smart, file your taxes in the USA even if you don’t work or live there anymore, (you just have to prove that you are paying here).
Making only expat friends
I believe in life you must have balance, and that pretty much applies to everything and everyone. While it’s super-easy to make friends with others in a similar situation (obviously I have) you have to be careful or else you may find yourself burned in the future. It’s easy to get quickly close with people in a way that you probably wouldn’t back home.
I do say that it is worth remembering that just because you share a common language doesn’t mean you were meant to be “besties”.
Does that mean don’t have expat friends? Heck no, you need them and most of my closest friends weren’t born in Italy but just try to mix it up with people who are local as well. You might find that the friendship is different but that’s ok too.
Get to know people slowly – ask questions, don’t feel pressured to be friends just because they/or you don’t know anyone else. Toxic energy can be contagious and I know from personal experience that it is not worth spending time with people you feel you “need to” out of some sort of obligation. It doesn’t help you and it doesn’t help them. Don’t find yourself in a co-dependent cycle which is surprisingly easy to do.
Try and make a few local friends even if it seems impossible, attending local language exchange, a running group, and volunteering helps!
The re-occurring cycle of making close friendships with people who eventually leave can be really heartbreaking after a few times, so knowing you can depend on a few core people who are making Italy their permanent home or are from there, will certainly be helpful to your day-to-day sanity.
1,000+ friendships on Facebook/Instagram doesn’t count.
We all heard that the “grass is always greener on the other side”, but guess what? Yours would be green too if you only watered it enough.
Italy has problems no doubt, but don’t be tactless, especially if you’re talking to Italians or people who have chosen to happily live their life here.
No one is going to want to be friends with someone who complains the second someone asks “How are you?”. The only thing that is going to work is if you yourself commit 100% to adapting to your new home and hold realistic expectations about the place in itself.
Keep in mind that venting is fine, we all participate in it, but keep it to a minimum and don’t let that be the first impression you give someone. That’s something I reserve for the third “date”.
Referring to yourself solely as an expat and not remembering that you are also an immigrant.
The word expat actually kind of annoys me because for some reason I have thought it to sound a bit elitist compared to the word “immigrant”.
I will admit, It’s easier to write “expat” in blog posts as an identifier and I myself do it, (see title) but the truth is, I always have considered myself an immigrant first because I emigrated to another country. An expat to me implies you are someone who isn’t staying around for long, likely posted here on a two-year work contract or something similar.
Sometimes when I think of the idea of what is actually an expat I imagine a group of English ladies sipping tea in the shade of their huge Tuscan villa. Not the same reality as me in a small apartment working as a freelancer. If you have seen the inside of the Questura on an intimate level, then likely you too are an immigrant.
Underestimating the cost of living.
This is a big mistake that I think is something I am surprised I don’t read more about. Italy is expensive, and it really isn’t the easiest place to make money or build a career from scratch.
With the economy being what it is, if you really want to make this country your home, you need to really think realistically about your financial situation and if you can take care of yourself. Do you have enough of a buffer? What if you can’t find a job?
Many people move here thinking they will instantly find a job, an apartment, a visa, and soon find out how hard that really is.
Rent is really expensive in big cities and local salaries range at an average of about 1000-1500 euros per month. Factor in bills, taxes, food, transportation, and travel and you can see what I mean about having a few jobs as being normal.
Most Italians have family help well into their later life and the Nonni economy is a prevailing truth that even I have struggled to accept. Some great tips for saving money
- Instead of having dinner out, have lunch instead. Many restaurants have special lunch menus for workers that I often take advantage of when people are in town visiting while cooking a yummy dinner at home. Or fill up at aperitivo.
- Utilities are expensive so take your grandmother’s advice and don’t leave a bunch of lights on at your house – also when it’s winter, gas can make your bills sky-high so wear a sweater in the house in the colder months and turn off the radiators in rooms you aren’t using.
- Be a smart shopper. Italy has big sales twice a year, normally after Christmas and in the summer/July. This is a great time to stock up on shoes, things for the house, and anything else that you need at a great discount.
- Look for transportation deals. Trenitalia, Italy’s national train company, has deals if you book in advance on their website, and the info is in English. Also, Trenitalia now has some competition, Italo is a new company and they are offering some great deals on high-speed trains between the larger cities in Italy. Also, ATAF bus company in Florence has a nifty “carte agile” a bus pass that comes in 10, 20, or 30 rides that never expires and gets you at least one or two free trips.
Work-wise, The ideal scenario is getting hired by a foreign company that has a base in Italy and getting your work details figured out before you come that way you can properly save. Working for yourself from the computer is also a good alternative, taxes are high but health care is affordable and excellent so there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Having overly high-expectations from people back home
This can be especially hard to deal with since it really is a matter of coming to terms with the truth.
Everyone wants to believe that people will continue to initiate constant interaction with you and it’s easy when you’re feeling homesick to want to feel connected to the people you left behind.
The truth is that you left, and they didn’t, and just as you are embarking on your new life and adventures – they have to move on with their day-to-day lives too.
Don’t expect them to call you every week or visit you every year, you are the one that changed your status quo which means you’re going to be the one reaching out more often than not. Guess what, that’s ok. I have close family members who have yet to visit me and I have lived in Italy for 6+ years — it is what it is. They make it up to me in tacos, my favorite kind of friendship currently.
Finalmente, I would love to hear your thoughts on anything I missed, or your own personal experiences, doesn’t have to be Italy, I love hearing all of your various experiences!