Not once have I regretted my decision to make Italy my home.
Was I motivated to move here by Italian fantasies? Somewhat. Did I have unrealistic expectations and did I view Italy through rose-colored glasses? Partially. But I credit many years of substantial time in Italy prior to moving here to help temper my expectations. When I arrived and began putting down roots, the road and dream unfolded. But there were plenty of speed bumps. Those only began smoothing out when I loosened my grip on how I expected Italy to be and behave.
Why am I writing about this topic? In my seven-plus years of ItalyWise, I’ve heard from countless wannabe ex-pats. I’ve heard from and witnessed new ex-pats adapting and sometimes struggling. The ones who have the toughest times, the rockiest roads, are those who have unrealistic Italian fantasies and are loathe to let them go.
Italy is many wonderful things.
But Italy is full of paradoxes. It is consistently inconsistent. Italy gets in its own way, and much of the logistics that might have been way easier back home take a circuitous and document-laden route to the finish line. For those who insist on their former conveniences and easier ways of doing things, look out for a coming emotional tempest. I’ve seen it happen time and time again: hands are thrown in the air with anger, frustration, and despair. People lament, “It shouldn’t be that way!” I ask, “By whose standards?” Then I remind myself that Italian fantasies have been ruling and not reality.
I blame the entertainment industry for Italian fantasies.
And foreigners’ inability to see beyond the icing. In classics like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, they remember a beautiful woman standing in a fountain in Rome and people going from one carefree party to the next. Then there are Sophia Loren movies. She’s in the back of a quaint Ape tooling about an expansive Italian countryside. Modern visions of Italy are offered as well. Take Under the Tuscan Sun with Diane Lane. I admit I was suckered in. But it doesn’t take much scrutiny and real experience living in Italy to understand that such a rendering is yet another of many Italian fantasies that is also far from the truth.
Do some serious homework on Italy and Italian culture.
Number one on the list? Studying and learning the language. If I could have a do-over, I would have doubled and tripled my efforts to be proficient in the language, well before I landed for the long haul. I’ve tried my best to pay forward this lesson, one that significantly impeded my assimilation into the Italian culture. Still, the number of people who gloss over this all-important necessity continues to amaze me.
Number two is to spend adequate time in Italy to allow the romantic glow of Italy’s first blush to wear off. I mean weeks if not months of time in Italy, staying in one place long enough to get to know and observe people. If you’re only hopping around to see and experience all that you can, you’re not going to getting the deeper view.
The third thing is to dive into the history and the politics of Italy. Without a basic understanding of these, you’ll be at a real loss trying understanding Italians and what makes them tick.
Beppe Severgnini says it best when it comes to Italian Fantasies.
In his book, La Bella Figura (available at amazon.com), Beppe Severgnini tackles the beautiful, the messy, and the contradictory aspects of Italy. I think it should be required reading for anyone wanting to live in Italy, even though it may just dash many of one’s Italian fantasies.
“First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring, but complicated. It’s the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or in the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis.”
As you contemplate living in Italy, ask yourself these four questions:
1. How willing I am to hop on the fast track to learning the language and culture?
If you’re chomping at the bit to get going in this respect, then brava or bravo! Wrapping your arms around these things will help you build a strong foundation that will lead to deeper friendships with Italians. This will also help you navigate the bureaucracy with which all Italian residents are faced, not just ex-pats. Not on board with these things or putting them off for “down the road” after you’ve settled in? Be prepared for your Italian fantasies to fizzle and be ready for frustration to set in quickly.
2. What is my tolerance level for inconsistency, paradox, long wait times, and a maze of bureaucracy?
Be honest with yourself. Really honest. All of the above are realities of life in Italy, and you’d best prepare for them and make peace with their existence. Otherwise, you risk being a person who insists that his or her Italian fantasies manifest while constantly resisting “what is” and complaining about it. And, for Italians, hearing complaining ex-pats who’ve come from countries like the United States, it wears thin. They’ll ask, “What did they expect?” and “Didn’t they understand this before coming here?” Also, an extra piece of advice: let the Italians be the ones to complain about their own bureaucracy, not you.
And don’t waste your energy expecting (or demanding in many cases) that the laws and general rules of your home country should be the same here.
3. How willing am I to change my behaviors?
I consider this to be perhaps the most difficult question to answer honestly. Why? Because I’ve spent too much of my eight-plus years here trying to stay in the comfort zone of my conditioned beliefs and behaviors. Because many new ex-pats are in their more mature years, the ability to adapt and moderate (notice I’m not saying a full about-face is necessary) is a tough road. But I’m more and more a believer that tackling new things and behaviors is the best fertilizer for our brains.
Italy is such a dramatically different culture in more ways than you can comprehend (at least initially). To participate in the culture and to show Italians that you respect their culture requires more than passing behavior modification. You won’t be able to coast on the novelty and ignorance of being a foreigner for too long.
4. How attached am I to “life as it was back home?”
This can be the real deal-breaker IF a person is completely honest with themself. It’s not a question that can be answered without spending ample time in Italy, testing the waters, and without taking a deeper dive into the language and the culture. Still, I’ve come across a fair number of people who’ve told themselves that they’re ready to cut the cord. Then, when things don’t go their way and reality sets in that they’re living under a different government and a different set of rules, they start packing up.
I’m not out to kill your Italian fantasies.
I hope all of you who have read this far understand this. I spend an ample amount of time dangling the carrot that is called Italy in front of my followers. I can do that because I couldn’t be happier with my life in Italy. But I’m happy because I’ve made peace with the more challenging parts of living in Italy.
Let me share an example that relates to some of the questions above. Moving my bank account from Treviso to Imperia required a mountain of effort including three trips to the bank, a load of paperwork and signatures, and new ATM and credit cards. Do I think it’s insane that I have to jump through so many hoops to move my branch with the SAME bank? Yes. Would the same thing have been a breeze back in the States? Yes. Does it do any good to dig my heels in and complain? No. So, I calmly and patiently went through the process, leaving me with the peace of mind to enjoy and appreciate other things.
The above situation with the bank may seem silly. But for me, it’s indicative of a huge leap forward from my first year in Italy during which time difficulty seemed to wait at every corner and with every task. Now, I understand that Italy has been perhaps the best teacher in my life to get out of old conditioned behaviors and thinking. Italy is breathing new life into me and keeping me young and on my toes.
Thanks Jed, Appreciate the kind compliment. All the best to you!! Bill
So true Jed, I think of a few things when I read this article. A friend of mine was told of the story of a convention to Venice and they were out eating dinner. It took a bit of time and someone at the table started to get restless and was complaining the dinner was taking too long. My friend told him to relax. Where you are wanting to go, you have already arrived. Enjoy the moment. My point being, you need to understand and accept, the culture is going to be different. I think the first question anyone needs to ask themselves is why am I moving to Italy? Is it for retirement or a job change? Both can be vastly different but the first and foremost task is to consider it an adventure and realize your not in Kansas anymore. Things wont be like it is in the U.S. and don’t go there and try to compare it to the U.S. If you do that, my question is why are you moving in the first place? If you accept it and consider it as an adventure, and accept the culture change, there are so many opportunites of places to see and things to do. Art, food, music, culture, etc… Yes, it is a different lifestyle and anyone making that jump, needs to be ready (and have some kind of excitement) to surrender to the Italian culture. If the reason of wanting to live in Italy is genuine and you are prepared to accept it as an adventure, I do believe it can be a move you won’t regret. But be prepared before you move! It is different, not in a bad way but an adventurous way! Viva Italia!
So we’ll expressed, Bill. When writing this post I thought of the words you used, “you’re not in Kansas anymore.” I also like that you speak to surrendering to the experience of Italy. In my view, I see too many people trying to bend Italy to be some kind of American or other cultural hybrid.
And, you underscore an essential question, “Why am I moving to Italy?” The answers are telling!
Thanks for writing and for the wise, additional comments and observations you’ve brought to the conversation! Jed
Well put Jed. All things people should think hard about before moving to Italy, or any other culture different from their own, for that matter.
Thanks, Nancy. You. Absolutely know what I’m talking about!
Thank you for the wisdom in this post. My husband and I have been traveling to Italy annually for many years and are now considering a property of our own, perhaps to retire to one day. We do have fantasies of Italy life, but it is actually the true Italia that draws us there long term. We long to escape entitlement thinking of those around us, and want to be surrounded by friends and neighbors who are happy with the simple pleasures of life. That still sounds like the fantasy, doesn’t it? We have a long way to go with proficiency with the language, which we are working on, and letting go of instant gratification (learning patience) but we hope to one day make a smooth transition.
Also, thanks for the book recommendation, it is already in my Amazon cart!
Hi Lisa. I can tell you and your husband are already well grounded in how you’re approaching a move to Italy. I’m glad you caution against “entitlement” attitudes. In my experience, any whiff of such an attitude will challenge an ex-pat’s success in Italy. Keep the faith in the language and immerse yourself in Italian music, tv, and movies. In my experience, at first it seems impossible to decipher but one‘s brain will slowly start making sense of it all!
All good advice Jed. There are always surprises, aren’t there? I wouldn’t have believed that you could not transfer your accounts to the same bank in another province. No wait! Yes, I can believe that!
Grazie, Elizabeth! You know all of this only too well! Miss you!
Well you nailed it! Love and miss you!
Right back at ya, dear friend!
Very sage advice! I will be in Bologna for a year to study Italian language at the age of 66 with a student visa. I think this is a good way to determine my tolerance for all things Italian after many 2-3 months visits.
Brava Sue! You’re certainly approaching your Italian life with wisdom!
Very realistic and frank article Jed. Many of us expats are resistant to change or a different way of doing things, and your correct, especially as we age change becomes a monumental task for some.
I appreciate your candidness and love of your Italian life and your embrace of change.
Lucca Italy/Portland, Maine
Thank you, Mike, for your encouragement! Sometimes I worry that I’m being too frank but I do want people to be “wise” about making Italy their home. So I have a duty to my blog’s name!
A superb piece, Jed. We have not been here as long as you have but I concur with everything.
One thing I would add:
We have learned to have a “Rule of Three.”
You can get one solid thing accomplished in a day.
You can even get two, with luck.
Three and its a miracle.
Get rid of the idea of long ToDo lists.
Not gonna happen.
And you will much happier.
Thanks, Mark for your additions! Well expressed and wise words!
I love Italy and am enjoying your posts.We moved to Eleuthera Bahamas full time from the USA in June after visiting here for 25 years.Your comments can also apply to the Bahamas( except for the language!) There’s a saying an expat used to share” It might not work, but it’ll work out”. I think in Italy you can buy and get things easier than in the Bahamas.We need to ship things over from Nassau or the US such as dog food, car parts etc.
Hi Lynn, you’re so right that reality checks are essential when entering life in different cultures all over the world. I love, ”It might not work, but it’ll work out.” Words to live by! Jed
Well said Jed. Life in Italy is not a holiday that never ends, but real life in an Italian way. Keep well and prosper. Gra and Pam
Thanks, Graham! We miss you and Pam!