If I had a do-over, I’d have started WAY earlier and studied WAY harder
If there is any one overarching piece of advice that I’d give people working their way towards a full-time life in Italy, it’s to get a head start on learning the Italian culture. Don’t wait until your feet are on the ground in Italy, thinking that real day-to-day living is your best classroom. While it ultimately WILL be your best classroom, don’t you want to feel like you’ve entered graduate school versus kindergarten? In my experience, too many people gloss over the importance of this. Instead, they allow themselves to be swept along by the Hollywood romanticized notions of la dolce vita. That’s why, when reality bites and new expats have to navigate a host of bureaucracy and cultural differences, many run for the exits. Many say the reality is just too demanding.
I deluded myself into thinking I was “good to go.”
Prior to my move, I’d been steadily doing Rosetta Stone. I was up to the intermediate level. Good, right? Well, maybe for not totally embarrassing myself. But if I had wanted to hold more keys to unlocking the rich experiences and relationships with Italians, I was sorely lacking. Having a feeble command of Italian can really hamstring a newbie, as I can attest. I found myself too much like a helpless infant needing the constant care of others.
If you don’t mind being largely dependent on others, then be prepared to be exhausted much of the time. Your first days, weeks, and months, will be full of constant effort. Your brain will hurt. Mine did. Thankfully, my now Italian spouse was patient and kind enough with me to do much of the heavy lifting. BUT, even for those who love you, constant dependency can strain the best of relationships (unless they thrive on codependency…yikes!).
All that said, I wasn’t terrible. But, I was terribly mediocre at communicating. It didn’t take long to realize that I was really missing out, having left so much learning until after I arrived in Italy.
You ain’t in Kansas anymore.
Please take time to digest this. Too many people not only pack up all their clothes and household goods, but they also pack up trunks of their native ways of living, whether that’s American, Australian, British, and so on. I’m amazed at how overly dependent many people can be on the cultures of their countries of birth, often prompting them to gather with the same ilk, often for safety and comfort. This becomes a kind of “gated-community” type existence. Instead, I heartily recommend doing plenty of hard studies ahead of time, and when you arrive, throwing yourself into the deep end of daily Italian living, and starting to swim.
So, the Italian language…
If you approach speaking Italy as a matter just of learning vocabulary, verb conjugations, and grammar, you’ll be missing out. Italian, while one of the easier languages for native English speakers to learn, still is very, very different. And it reflects much about how Italians think and operate. Here’s just one example: The conjunctive (congiuntivo) verb tense. There really isn’t an equivalent in English. Conjunctive verbs specifically express opinions, hopes, regrets…basically hypothetical expressions about life. Saying “I think that Maria is beautiful,” translates to “Penso che Maria sia bella.” To express the same, almost as a fact, saying “Maria is beautiful,” which translates to “Maria è bella,” changes the verb form of essere (to be). In English, “is” would be “is” in both situations.
Learning the Italian culture involves getting into the language in ways such as this. Understand that Italians speak passionately, expressing emotion and opinions about things, so much that there is an entire, different verb structure for speaking in this way. I see it as yet another way that Italian is such a musical and poetic language.
You’ll also come to understand that saying something in Italian tends to be longer and sometimes structurally complex to an English speaking mind. Americans, conversely, often are perceived as being overly succinct and abrupt in their communications. Just as Italian enjoy longer, leisurely meals, they also enjoy longer conversations, frequent endearments, and long good-byes (read my post about the latter).
Italians will eventually take you to task for not learning the language.
One thing that I appreciate about most Italians is their honesty. When you enter into friendships with Italians, they usually won’t hesitate to tell you how they see it. And, by “it,” in this case, I mean one’s command of speaking Italian. In their minds, dedication to learning the Italian culture must be evidenced by a commitment of time and energies to learn the language, first and foremost. Reflecting on my experience, after living in Italy a year, you’d best be prepared for brows of disbelief and disdain for laziness at having remained at such a weak level of speaking competency. Believe me, many of my Italian friends continue to challenge me on this. So, take note.