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.

Start learning the Italian culture—and the language of the hands

And, the language of the hands…

If you’re learning the Italian culture you MUST take a deep dive here as well. Read up on it, watch videos, but above all, don’t just copy some Hollywood characterization (often overly exaggerated). Oh no, that’s dangerous, and if you try to emulate such things, it can come off badly and offensive. Most important is to understand what Italians are saying, not just with their mouths, but with their hands as well. Italian hands speak volumes. The gesture in this photo is probably the most famous Italian hand gesture. It can be used in many ways, but it mainly is used to punctuate (usually with passion) what is being expressed. The Italian, Vincenzo, in this YouTube video offers a quick overview of this gesture and a few more.

Start Learning Italian culture, the bidet is essential to personal hygiene

Let’s talk about daily Italian living.

Understanding what is important to Italians is essential if you’re learning the Italian culture. You may not want to adapt to many beliefs and customs, but you’d better be attuned to them if you don’t want to be run out of town.

Just one example is how having a bidet is of paramount importance in almost every Italian household. Italy has the highest per capita use in Europe. That’s because personal hygiene is incredibly important. Bidets are not just novelty fixtures, sitting around unused. Once you enter into the confidence of your new Italian friends, you’ll understand why. My Italian spouse and friends express incredulity that most American households don’t have a bidet. I’m asked, “How does a person do a proper job of cleaning up with only toilet paper?” I’m afraid they’re right. I’m a bidet devotee now and I remain aghast at myself for having lived so many years without one.

Learning the shopping styles and rhythms is also another key area of the Italian culture. Unlike Americans, Italians as a general rule, don’t “bulk up” and populate their shelves with inexhaustible supplies. Shopping is done more frequently, which is why the open markets in Italian are frequent. Not only are these markets the source of the freshest ingredients, they’re a font of socializing (with plenty of gossiping).

Then, there are long conversations and communing over unhurried meals. If, for example, a person brings and implements an American get-to-the-point brevity, they’ll run counter to the Italian style. Time with friends and family is anything but rushed and meals and conversations can be quite lengthy. Again, this underscores the importance of having a solid command of understanding and speaking Italian. If you don’t have this, be prepared to feel like an outsider at important gatherings. This means not only listening but participating!

Start learning the Italian culture and its complicated government
Start learning the Italian culture and how and when elections are held

Learn about Italian politics and its history.

Learning the Italian culture would be incomplete without this. And, oh, what a complicated story it all is. Just understanding how the parliament is structured and the differences between the President and the Prime Minister will tax your brain. Add to the equation the multitude of times the government leadership has changed hands and how frequently national elections are called. Just a few months ago, Italians voted overwhelmingly to reduce the size of parliament by a third. (Read the BBC article for the full story). Now, what’s crazy about this is that former PM Renzi’s undoing was trying to do something similar, quite unsuccessfully. I share this, hoping to help you understand how fickle Italian political sentiments can be. You sometimes will get whiplash trying to keep up with prevailing political winds.

And then there is the history of Berlusconi…

How did he get his start? Promising the populous he would protect them from communism (sound familiar?).

Well, Berlusconi used his considerable financial resources and ownership of some of the top media companies and television stations to drive the narrative. In spite of rampant, visible corruption, he remained in power for years. And the man has managed to dodge a long list of criminal investigations and charges, including the infamous sex scandal with an underaged belly dancer named Ruby.

I encourage you to read up on his career on Wikipedia. Be prepared since it might make your head explode. Also, you’ll get a small taste of how so many parties vie for power and forge coalitions with other parties, sometimes mortal enemies, just to be in power.

One sentence leaped out at me, causing me to audibly gasp:

“Many critics of Berlusconi accused him of using his power primarily to protect his own business ventures.”

Why does this sound so familiar?

The Italian mind and culture are full of paradoxes.

This, my friends, is something NOT to be glossed over. I urge you to take a deep dive on this now, not later. If you don’t, your Italian dream might just crumble sooner than later. Rather than attempting to articulate the how and why of this, I leave you to the accomplished journalist, Beppe Severgnini, and his book La bella figura. Severgnini writes with great flair and humor.

“Join the bestselling author of Ciao, America! on a lively tour of modern Italy that takes you behind the seductive face it puts on for visitors—la bella figura—and highlights its maddening, paradoxical true self.”

In closing, be prepared to have your comfort zone pushed to the limits. That’s why preparing now can minimize the pain!

Please learn from my experience. While I did put out some good initial effort in preparation, I realize now that I could have done SO much more. Ask yourself if you’re up for finding yourself in the deep end of the pool (Italian culture) without a life jacket or a lifeguard close by.

And, if you’re one of the many people temporarily sidelined by COVID from progressing onwards in your journey to living in Italy, consider this “waiting” time a gift. Use it wisely and do the work of learning the Italian culture now. You’ll thank yourself later.