#10 No Pain, No Gain.
Building a life in Italy takes hard work and commitment. You may be saying, “That’s a no-brainer.” Yes, many people tackle living in a new country with a very different culture with gusto. But I’ve met and heard from a fair number of people who fold when the going gets tough. They pack up and go home. The list of requirements to remain in Italy can challenge the most dedicated person (including me).
Consider, for example, the permesso di soggiorno process and how its application and timing can vary from region to region. The yearly application, the yearly questura appointment, and the yearly wait for it to arrive. Sometimes it arrives so late after the application submission that it’s almost time to apply for the renewal. You’ll want to scream.
#9 Prepare to Find Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Unless you are so rich that you have a team of on-the-ground Italian experts to guide your every move, you will often feel uncomfortable. After ten years in Italy, discomfort is still a regular occurrence. In my early days, I’d enter freakout mode a little too quickly, but eventually, I let it be a catalyst for me to up my skills.
Let me give you an example. That’s navigating the national health system in Italy. Recently I’ve had to find my way around multiple doctors and appointments to address structural and muscular issues. Sometimes my other half has been with me as an emergency translator, but I’ve been insisting more and more that I navigate this on my own. That isn’t a cakewalk. I’ve sat in doctors’ offices explaining (in Italian) myself and my issue. I’ve gone to the local health “hub” to get vaccinations (Covid, Flu, Shingles, Pneumonia) and to have other tests done (thankfully, all is normal). But for me, this isn’t a fluid experience in which I can glide through the whole process like a regular Italian. I have to be super alert!
#8 Patience, Patience, Patience.
I’ll say this upfront: If you have a short fuse regarding patience, don’t come to Italy. I’d love to say that things happen expeditiously in Italy. Surprisingly, there have been a few uncomplicated things, like getting my Italian passport after I became a citizen. But, for the lion’s share of things you must do, including daily things, you’ll find yourself waiting (read my post about waiting).
If you think your experiences in a US post office were challenging, be prepared to take that to a new level. Walking in and out of an Italian post office rarely comes without a significant wait or having to redo something.
#7 Leave the American (or insert your country of birth here) mindset behind.
Alright, I’m going to raise my hand and confess publicly that I’ve often been a bit pig-headed in my American mentality. Fortunately, I’m on a path of healing (yes, you can laugh) and progress. I’ll never be able to completely extract the influence of being raised American, but more and more, I’m feeling more Italian and European.
I counsel people coming to live in Italy to take this to heart. I also encourage people just coming for a visit to do the work, to learn enough about Italian culture and the language, all to make their experience deeper and richer.
Italians are passionate about their culture. Europeans too. And, American attitudes (sometimes coupled with entitlement) can go over like a lead balloon.
I easily could have called this takeaway from my ten years in Italy as “Be humble.” Consider that you are stepping into someone’s home and that home has vastly different ways of doing things and different rules. You are a guest in Italy until you prove yourself by learning and respecting the Italian culture.
#6 Dispense with Italian Stereotypes
Hollywood and TV series make this difficult. Rarely are depictions of Italians and Italian life not exaggerated. Italy is NOT just exuberant and overly familiar Italians from the south of Italy. They’re not all connected with the Mafia or some other branch of the crime families in Italy.
In my opinion, the dangerous aspect of Italian stereotypes is how their speaking and gesturing mannerisms are often over the top. I cringe big time when I witness Americans with a little bit of the Italian language under their belts, speaking the language and overemphasizing words, phrases, and gestures. Believe me, that goes over like a lead balloon with Italians.
#5 Do Your Full Due Diligence AHEAD of Time.
A lot of people do this. But a fair amount of people don’t. They arrive in Italy only to find that something essential, like getting a driver’s license, is something way more daunting and complicated than they had thought (or wanted).
I counsel people to understand what is generally required in Italy and what will be specifically required in your region of residence. Too many people skip over this and then find themselves regretting where they chose to live.
Consider the following: Having a permesso di soggiorno and getting your tessera sanitaria in Umbria versus getting it in Veneto. While the health system is national, its application and cost can vary significantly by region. You’ll pay a lot more in Umbria (a sliding scale based on your income) while you’ll pay a flat feet (around 400€ yearly) in Veneto. Wouldn’t you like to know something like that WAY ahead of time? It certainly is a factor when considering where to live in Italy.
Of course, other factors balance out a decision like this. But I urge people to know the full scope of what to expect. Don’t let yourself be surprised.
#4 Forget Trying Workarounds.
I cannot tell you how many inquiries I’ve received from people trying to avoid a required process. Getting an Italian driver’s license is a biggie. Many people (myself included, at the beginning) can’t get past their outrage at being knocked back to zero with their proven driving record. They believe it’s downright wrong that they must sit alongside teenagers in driving school getting their first license.
I’ve heard it all. Setting up a fake address in another EU country where the theory driving test can be given in English (not an option in Italy). Others want to skirt the system and keep driving with an American license attached to an International Driver’s license. Once a person becomes a resident in Italy, they are obliged to have an Italian driver’s license after a year of residency. A whole heap of financial and legal issues arise if you veer outside the defined laws.
Even for getting an elective residency visa, some people think they can circumvent going through the Italian Embassy in their home jurisdiction. They think they can start and complete the whole process here in Italy.
#3 Embrace and Learn the Italian Culture.
This harkens back to #7 Leave Your American Conditioning Behind.
I can tell you from ten years in Italy that if you don’t learn and embrace the Italian culture enthusiastically, you’ll find yourself existing on the outskirts of real Italian life. It will be superficial.
So much is tied up in having a deep understanding of Italian culture. When you understand the culture, so much more makes sense. The Italian language is the biggest part of the Italian culture (that comes next).
Watch Italian tv. Read Italian newspapers. If you’re a CNN or Fox News addict, give that a smaller percentage of your attention. If you don’t, you’re still too firmly planted across the Atlantic and enmeshed in your former culture.
#2 Learn and Develop Competence in Speaking Italian.
At the very least, I recommend competency at an intermediate level (B1 to B2). If there is one thing that can make your life in Italy better and more satisfying, this is it! If you don’t master this, you’ll feel like you’re constantly on the outside looking it.
I’ve written about this time and time again. A few people harken to my advice. Still, many ex-pats keep avoiding seriously learning Italian. Yes, it’s hard work. It also can cause one’s head to ache as the brain struggles to create new neural pathways to get beyond mere memorization. And that goes back to #10 – No Pain, No Gain!
#1 Be Flexible.
I debated choosing #2 and #1, almost considering them a tie. But I decided that being flexible is probably the most essential ingredient to nearly everything you will do and encounter in Italy. Rigidity, when confronted with changing and/or confusing situations or processes, will only hurt you. Italians sniff it out. You don’t want that.
During my ten years in Italy, I’ve heard from a fair number of people sharing stories and asking questions. Red warning lights have flashed in my head from many of them whom I sense will stiffen and complain at the first sign of difficulty. I can smell a disaster coming, especially if such people are fixated on their romantic ideas of life in Italy and haven’t balanced that with a good dose of reality. No, Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.
Being flexible often will mean surrendering or relaxing into a perceived difficulty. I’m not saying you should be a wet noodle and not do your best. But I believe, more and more, in trusting in the river of life to help things work out (I even wrote a post about it).
And that, my friends, are my top ten takeaways from ten years in Italy!