Perils and Pitfalls of Speaking Italian

The Perils and Pitfalls of Speaking Italian

Know the challenges of speaking Italian, apply yourself, and you’ll be speaking proficiently in no time.

I’ve been living in Italy for over two years now. One of the things I’ve been hearing from more than one source here is that it takes a least that amount of time for things to start “clicking” in the brain – provided a person is immersing himself or herself in the language. This means some sort of study program and it means surrounding yourself, more and more, with native speakers, and resisting the urge to spend most of your time in the safety of other English-speaking expats.

Speaking Italian is not easy in my experience. Let me clarify, speaking Italian WELL is not an easy in experience. If you’re reading this post and if you’re only interested in visiting Italy for a short time, you certainly can set your sights on a lower learning curve. But, if you’re planning on a longer stay, or if you’re planning on living here permanently I encourage you to embrace your fears and tackle the language in a way that will give you a proficiency to help you not only in the dealing practicalities of life, but to help you build friendships and garner respect from the Italians.

If you’re serious about making Italy your home, learning the language is paramount. Otherwise you risk being perceived as an entitled foreigner who expects the burden of communication to fall on the locals. I’ve heard many English speakers (mainly tourists in Rome, Venice, Florence, etc.) becoming indignant that more Italians  don’t speak English.

My education in comprehending and speaking Italian continues. I’m impatient with myself for not being further along, but I have made considerable progress. In the process, I’ve identified several perils and pitfalls of speaking Italian. The following are 10 pieces of advice that I’d like to share:

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Il permesso di soggiorno – The Stay Permit

The permesso di soggiorno is essential for stays of longer than 90 days.

The permesso di soggiorno is essential for stays of longer than 90 days.

If you decide to move to Italy, or if you plan a long-term sabbatical, you will need to have a permesso di soggiorno, a stay permit. I just received my third renewal, and I am working towards having a carta di soggiorno, a permit for a longer stay. My understanding is the carta is only available after five years of residency, so I still have some time before I can make that application.

If you’ve done your research about living in Italy, hopefully you will have learned that it’s all doable. However, I hope your research has taught you that you will need to have an ample helping of patience in the process. Many Americans, in my experience, are used to things happening at the snap of their fingers, and with greater predictability. If you are married to this way of thinking or to those expectations, I recommend you stay in the U.S. and only plan for short stays.

It’s complicated…or it can be complicated. Let me explain.

The most daunting part of the process is FIRST getting your visa from the Italian consulate. The hurdles can be significant, depending on your individual scenario. For instance, if you communicate to the Italian consulate of your jurisdiction that you are planning to move to Italy for the rest of your life, be prepared for much greater scrutiny, and be prepared to demonstrate that you have either a). A solid job with a company in Italy (and the documentation attesting to this) or b). Sufficient means of income, or money in the bank, to cover you for the rest of your life. Regardless of your plan, you will receive (at most) a visa of a year’s duration. Yes, whether you plan to move here for the rest of your life, or whether you plan to take a two-year sabbatical, you will receive a visa of the same duration. My advice? Unless you are certain you plan to live here for the rest of your life, set this up as a “test drive” and communicate in kind with the Italian consulate. Otherwise, be prepared to clear a higher set of hurdles.

Once you have your Italian visa in your U.S. passport, it becomes a different story. By that, I mean the visa gets you into Italy with some “runway” to work things out with the questura, or the local immigration police. Here’s the process as I understand it*:

Once you have “landed” you must make sure your passport is stamped adjacent to your visa to indicate your entry into the country. Otherwise, you will need to visit the local questura to announce your presence/arrival into Italy.

Within a couple of weeks (be sure to ascertain the timing, but err on the side of shorter, not longer) submit your application for a permesso di soggiorno. Here in Umbria, I was directed to utilize the service of a local union, where they fill out your application, without charge, and they deliver a computer printout with instructions on paying your bollo (tax stamp) and submitting your application at the post office, where you will pay additional fees. All in, I think I paid around $150 for the application.

There are several designations regarding the type of application for a permesso di soggiorno. Many people apply for a work permit, and that is a specific “animal” with specific requirements. You can apply for a permesso di soggiorno per residenza elettiva, which is a residency permit saying you will reside here without working – or without working here for a company in the traditional sense. Basically, it means you are retiring here, and not working in a way that takes work/opportunity away from an Italian citizen. Regardless, it is incumbent upon you to research and determine the type of stay permit you wish to receive, and the rules and regulations pertaining to each type of permit. Then, you proceed accordingly.

For me, I completed my application, which meant supplying:

– Copies of all pages of my passport which have a). Basic information. b). Pages that have been stamped.

– A document proving I have health insurance coverage.

– Financial proof of viability (bank statements, pension statements or social security statements if that applies to you)

– Proof of residence or ownership of a house. Either a lease agreement or document showing ownership of a house along with a certificato di agibilità, which certifies you are living in a house that passes the housing codes/standards.

I understand, from other people, that also you can complete the application online, but I prefer to work with the union, so that I have assurance from another set of eyes looking at my application.

At the post office, once you submit the application and the bollo, you will be assigned an appointment with the questura (immigration police). Be sure to make this date, where you will be finger-printed, and asked questions regarding any missing or questionable information.

Then, be prepared to wait. The first time I submitted my application, it took 3 1/2 months to receive my actual permesso. This was difficult, because for other things (like purchasing a car), the post office receipt was not deemed sufficient. In subsequent years, the receipt for renewal was said to be sufficient.

I’ve heard varying stories about applying for the national healthcare plan. I wasn’t able to do it until I had my first permesso, and after I also had my residency card from the commune.

The second year, my permesso took almost 4 months. This year it was over 4 months, which speaks to the backlog and workload of the questura.

Now, to complicate matters further, there is an “integration agreement” you sign when you first apply for a permesso di soggiorno. This details a point system you must follow and meet upon your third year of residency. You are required to have at least 30 points, which includes points for ascertaining/certification you can speak at an A2 level of the Italian language, and ascertaining you have passed a sufficient civic knowledge of life in Italy.

I was told, not only by other people who have lived here for several years, but also by the questura, that this additional criteria would not be tested unless I was applying for a longer stay permit. Wrong. This week I received a letter from the immigration office in Perugia to begin supplying documentation to begin tallying to point requirement. Yesterday, I visited the office,  and submitted the documents. The biggie is the language certification. I took an official A2 certification test in Rome in early June, yet my results will not be registered until September. I’m sure all will be well, but it’s just a pain to be following all of the steps to make sure I am following protocol.

Don’t be discouraged. Just understand the different possible scenarios. Italy can be unpredictable. My strategy is planning for all the all possibilities.

At this point, I feel compelled to point out that there are many people living here in Italy while “skating” under the radar for certain requirements (like driver’s license, medical insurance, etc.). I admire them for their courage, but I’m a person who likes to be more “precise”, and I’m also a person who doesn’t want to be jettisoned from the country for not following certain protocol – and then being barred from re-entry – not only to Italy but to the EU. We all make our own choices. I prefer to sleep well at night, knowing I am doing my best to follow the guidelines.

 

 

 

 

 

What do you think? A viper or something else????

Yes, just outside our back door, the dreaded Italian viper makes his way up the stone wall.

Is this indeed the vipera aspis, or a European Cat Snake?

My most recent post was about what I thought was the appearance of a viper, just a few feet from our back door. I admit, I was thoroughly freaked out, being a complete wuss since childhood when it comes to snakes. And, I haven’t been able to quit obsessing about it.

I was certain it was a viper after viewing the attached YouTube video, and my neighbor Elena, who has been working this land for more years than I have been alive, saw the photo and concurred it was a viper.

After my good friend Jill suggested it might be another type of snake – one that is harmless, I was eager to believe I had made a mistake. Plus, there were two glaring inconsistencies with nailing this as a vipera aspis. From the eye, down to the body, the vipera aspis seems to have a black stripe, which makes the face/head even more menacing. “Our” snake is missing this marking. Also, a vipera aspis usually tops out at around 33″ and “our” snake looks to be at least a meter long – and more tapered than the usual fat body of a viper. However, from the neck down this snake looks a lot like the one in the video.

Now what?

I hopped online and looked up “snakes of Italy” and went to a website that listed every snake you might find here. I went through every one, looking at pictures and reading descriptions. Then I came across what, to me, seems to be the leading candidate for identification – the European Cat Snake, which matches almost all the criteria for “our” snake. It has the same markings, it can be 1.3 meters long, it loves rock walls, and it is readily found in Italy, and many other Mediterranean countries. Bingo. Our photo doesn’t get close enough to the head to provide more information, but the European Cat Snake, like ours, doesn’t have the stripe emanating from the eyes and going down the body.

I thought that the viper is the only venomous snake in Italy. The European Cat Snake is also venomous. However, it’s fangs are rear-facing and constructed in a way to deliver venom only to small prey. Supposedly, this snake is not a danger to humans because it has no way to bite and deliver its venomous and this larger scale. Is this supposed to make me feel better and safe? I don’t think so.

So, my obsessive compulsive nature has been driving me to identify and catalog this snake – and to know the identity of all of my neighbors here in the country. Maybe then I’ll accept the facts and move on.

I’d love to hear your opinions and if anyone has expertise in snake identification, I’m all ears. Let me hear from you!

 

An Italian viper appears…

Yes, just outside our back door, the dreaded Italian viper makes his way up the stone wall.

Yes, just outside our back door, the dreaded Italian viper makes his way up the stone wall.

Reading that Italy has only one poisonous snake, the viper, is one thing. Seeing one making its way up the old stone wall adjacent to our backdoor is another thing altogether. Until I had seen one for myself, I was able to delude myself into thinking “Yeah, they’re around, but they’re shy and they rarely come out.”  Indeed they are not eager for an encounter or a fight. But, when they are big (like this one) and close to the house, I’m compelled to take steps to protect ye ole homestead.

I did an internet search, hoping the results would assure me this merely was a large non-venomous snake, but something in me (probably ancient survival programming) knew this wouldn’t be the case. Sure enough, the online description and photos confirmed this was a vipera aspis. Check, check, check. Dam, it all fit. And, I was irritated that the description said an adult male would top out around 32″. This fellow was at least a yard long.

Yuck, yuck, yuck. I know I’m supposed to take the higher, more enlightened perspective of what a magnificent creature this is. But, I can’t. I just hate snakes. My fear of them robs me of peace of mind. I’m certain this guy has a family lurking close by – probably up in the piece of my land that houses long-abandoned chicken coops and a giant, overgrown pile of terra-cotta roof tiles.

Am I supposed to take solace in the fact that only 4% of untreated viper bites are fatal? What about the aftereffects of a venom that causes tissue necrosis, nerve damage, and possible renal failure?

On the positive side, I’ve learned that the sweet little hedgehogs I see scurrying about, love to kill and munch on vipers. They provoke the snake, prompting “strikes” in which the viper damages itself on the quills of the hedgehog. The confrontation continues until the snake is sufficiently wounded, at which time our little hero moves in for the kill, and a dinner that takes a few hours. Bravo little hedgehog.

Oh well. Life in Italy has its dangers. Thinking I could create some type of Utopia of complete safety and security is just major self-delusion. I made the choice to settle down in a remote corner of Umbria, which is ripe with all sorts of wildlife, and even the viper has its place in the cycle of life. I will endeavor to respect that. Still, I will dust off the knee-high snake proof boots that I purchased several years ago for this very possibility (never imagining I would really need them), and get to work securing the areas close to the house by eliminating tall grasses and other hospitable conditions for the viper. Time to reclaim my peace of mind.

Aperol Spritz – Signature Drink of Venice

The Aperol Spritz is THE Signature Drink of Venice

The Aperol Spritz is THE Signature Drink of Venice

We just returned from Venice where I officially I initiated my love affair with the Aperol Spritz, the signature drink of Venice. Ever since I overdosed on gin and tonics in my early twenties, I have avoided any type of cocktail that has the slightest bitter taste. I had tried an Aperol Spritz several years ago, without being impressed and without wanting to repeat the experience. Perhaps it was just bad timing and the wrong conditions. Fast forward to a suffocatingly hot and humid June day in Venice, when my mouth was screaming for something to revive me and to quench my thirst. This time, the Aperol Spritz was magical, and now I am a devotee. I probably shouldn’t confess this, but between the two of us, Simone and I consumed probably fifteen of these beauties during our three-and-a-half day stay in Venice.

If you’re not having an Aperol Spritz, along with cicchetti (small bites or a Venetian type of “tapas”), then you’re not getting into the swing of Venetian life. Making a meal of these small bites while enjoying a Spritz is quick and easy.

Aperol Ready for Mixing and Consuming

Aperol Ready for Mixing and Consuming

An Aperol Spritz is made of three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol, and one part fizzy water. Add a slice of orange or lemon, and your ready to go. Normally you can find a Spritz for 3-4 euro, but expect to pay much more if you choose to sit in a popular tourist spot.

My New Favorite Tee Shirt from Elitre Concept Store in Venice

My New Favorite Tee Shirt from Elitre Concept Store in Venice

I returned from Venice with my witty new Spritz tee-shirt, which I found in the Elitre Concept Store. The store has two locations – one in the Dorsoduro, and the other close to the Rialto Bridge. Federica, who owns and runs the store, has curated the store selection with uniquely fashionable and fun items. You’ll find many items there to temp your whimsy.

 

 

Learning the ways of the contadini italiani

My neighbors, a brother and sister, hard at work in their large vegetable garden.

My neighbors, a brother and sister, hard at work in their large vegetable garden.

“Contadini italiani” is most often translated as “Italian farmers”. Our Umbrian home  is smack dab in the middle of a community of hardworking farmers. These aren’t farmers operating a large-scale business. Mostly, they are growing for their own needs and households. This means they eat well as the growing season begins hitting its stride in late May and early June, and by summer’s end they also have replenished their cellars and cupboards with root vegetables, and countless jars of preserved fruits and vegetables. And, most of what is produced here is done “bio” – the Italian moniker for “organic”.

This is my third year of having a garden. When I moved to Italy in May 2013 I was swamped with countless logistics associated with the move and getting residency,  so I planted a very small garden which, in retrospect, was an embarrassing attempt at basic gardening. I was doing everything wrong, and I was lucky to harvest a handful of green beans and tomatoes. My neighbors, skillful contadini, didn’t ridicule me. They simply made some suggestions as to how I might do it differently “il prossimo anno” – the next year.

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Buying a House in Italy

 

Buying a house in Italy is easier than you might think. But, the process is quite different from the States.

Buying a house in Italy is easier than you might think. But, the process is quite different from the States.

Looking back at all the things I’ve done in planning and relocating my life, buying a house in Italy was one of the easiest things…surprisingly. In fact, buying a house here is vastly easier than buying a car. Go figure. To buy a car in Italy, you must first be a resident, and that can take some time and patience. To buy a house, you need a codice fiscale (an Italian tax number) and you need to open an Italian bank account – which you can do in a non-resident status. Once you have done those two things, you can pretty much head back to your current home country and handle the remainder of the negotiations and transactions from there –  provided already you’ve found a property that captured your heart, and provided you’ve taken a good, thorough look at the property.

Don’t waste your time trying to figure out why the “system” here makes it fairly easy to buy a house, while making the purchase of a car such an arduous process. Just appreciate that buying a house can go pretty smoothly…provided you take into consideration the following advice.

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Trastevere’s Antica Caciara delivers heavenly, fresh ricotta…and more.

Ricotta di Pecora - fresh sheep's milk ricotta

Ricotta di Pecora – fresh sheep’s milk ricotta

I’m going to gush. Fair warning.

Trastevere’s Antica Caciara is paradise on earth when it comes to gourmet cheese and cured meats. “Caciara” is an Italian word meaning “confusion, bedlam, hubbub, muddle; mess, disorder.” The experience inside this shop is full of energy – energy from customers queueing up to make sure they don’t miss out on the fresh sheep’s milk ricotta prominently displayed in one of the front windows. And, you’d better grab some when you see they have it, because it will definitely make you want to slap someone out of enthusiasm once you taste it. I can’t believe it’s less than five euro a kilo. No wonder it flies out the door.

Antica Caciara is the absolute best place for cheese, prepared meats and baccala.

Antica Caciara is the absolute best place for cheese, prepared meats and baccala.

But, there’s more, loads more – a vast assortment of artisanal cheeses, and every variety of cured meat you could hope for. At one entrance you practically have to shoulder your way past a huge display of guanciale, which is made from pork cheek or jowl, and is an essential ingredient (a preferred cut over traditional pancetta) in Bucatini all’Amatriciana. In case you don’t know, Bucatini all’Amatriciana is one of Rome’s hallmark dishes, originating just outside of the city in the town Amatice in the Sabine Hills.

When I go to Antica Caciara, which is often, I load up on ricotta, a special spicy salame, and a salame with fennel. The people who run the shop couldn’t be more gentile. They recognize me now, and they always greet me warmly. What a great business to be delivering a big slice of culinary paradise to eager customers. If you’re in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, be sure to check it out, especially if you want to fill your bag for a gourmet picnic, and then head up the hill to see Bramante’s Tempietto, and one of the most spectacular panoramic views of Rome.

A profuse display of guanciale, an essential ingredient in Bucantini Amatriciana

A profuse display of guanciale, an essential ingredient in Bucantini Amatriciana

Baccala - Another staple in la cucina Romana

Baccala – Another staple in la cucina Romana

Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered by Dianne Hales

Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered by Dianne Hales

Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered by Dianne Hales

Who was she? Author Dianne Hale weaves a fascinating tale to answer this question about, arguably, the most famous painting of all time. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered is the result of in-depth research into both Leonardo di Vinci and his subject, Lisa Gherardini. Such research included on-the-ground “digging” into antique documents (records and letters) buried in massive files stored in Florence, Italy. Ms. Hale is a woman on a mission. And, that mission is to bring Leonardo’s subject, of whom we know little, into greater focus.

I debated whether to read this book, because I knew once I started reading, I risked wiping away much of the mystery and speculations that we’ve all enjoyed for so many years about the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile. But, I like historical detective work, so I decided to proceed.

I found Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered to be an engaging read, but not for the reasons I had anticipated. In seeking to piece together the chain of events leading to the painting of the Mona Lisa, and its “travels” after completion, Ms. Hale paints a vivid picture of life in Italy during the Renaissance – particularly in Florence. I love following a mystery while gaining greater historical context in the process. I learned more about Leonardo di Vinci. Enough details exist about him to allow the reader to sense his personality, his willfulness, his brilliance, and his capriciousness in flitting from one project to another while leaving unfulfilled promises and works in his wake. Lisa Gherardini, is a different story, however. While Ms. Hale has amassed admirable historical details of her life and her subsequent marriage to Francesco del Giocondo, a silk and cloth merchant, little exists to create any sense of her personality. Here Ms. Hale must stick to conjecture and supposition – lots of “What if?” Perhaps this is the unfortunate by-product of women having second-class status, and less attention being given to a housewife and mother in the chronicles of history.

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Un’ottima scuola di Italiano: Torre di Babele Roma

If you're serious about learning to speak Italian properly, this is the school in Rome for you.

If you’re serious about learning to speak Italian properly, this is the school in Rome for you.

I recently completed a four-week intensive Italian language course at Torre di Babele Roma. At the conclusion of my last class my brain was beyond saturated with the complexities of Italian grammar, but I could not have been happier with the experience. And, I could not have been in more capable and more loving hands. This school is a class act in every regard.

I researched and visited another prominent Italian language school in Rome prior to choosing Torre di Babele, but I just wasn’t “feeling the love”. I’m sure the other school is capable, but I needed an environment where I would not feel stressed. I’m a serious student, but learning, for me, is most fruitful when the teaching includes smiles and patience. Thankfully, I took the trip to visit Torre di Babele, and found plenty of these traits.

The school is located in a lovely residential neighborhood, just a short walk from the Policlinico metro stop. Elegant wrought iron gates greet you, and the building looks like a stately home, nestled amongst lush greenery.

When I first visited the school I met with the director and she made time to sit with me and find out what I was looking for in a school and what I wanted to do with my Italian studies. She was also getting a sense of my aptitude and level of speaking Italian. She asked me if I had time to take a 20-minute test to assess my skills. I guess my years of doing Rosetta Stone paid off, and I was placed in the Level 4 class – that’s like a beginning intermediate level. Even then, I was advised to study conditional verb tenses in preparation for the class.

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