Thursday, September 19, 2013

5 Crucial Mistakes Expats Make in Italy

Sometimes, it's like this.
I am the first person to admit that life in Italy is not always a bed of roses. Or rather, it is a bed of roses, but someone neglected to remove the thorns. So, just as you get comfy and cozy on this sweet smelling bed, you get pricked, and it hurts. Then, you curse the bed and the whole idea of the bed and whose idea was it to lie down in this stupid bed anyway and why can’t it be like all the other beds and why isn’t it like my old bed back home?

But this isn’t any old bed. It’s made of roses, after all, and that don’t make beds like that where you come from. And that’s why you laid down in it.
Sometimes, it's like this.

I know I write from a privileged position. My emigration to Italy and more importantly, my transition to life here, were made infinitely easier by the fact that I married an Italian. This enabled me—forced me, really—to learn the language, the customs and the culture. It taught me patience and perseverance, and it thickened my skin—a lot.

So maybe it’s because of this position that I can observe a lot of mistakes that I see my fellow expatriates make in Italy. And I’m not talking about the newcomers—I mean the people who have been here for years, decades even.  I doubt that it’s easy to relocate to any country, especially when that country’s language is not your mother-tongue. But I’m gonna judge my fellow Anglo-Saxons here a bit, so brace yourselves for the top five crucial mistakes expatriates make in Italy.

So maybe you're expecting this...

And instead, you get this.
Seriously scary...
1. They don’t learn the language. This one seems like it should be fundamental, and yet... too many expatriates don’t ever learn Italian sufficiently to function here, or at least to function smoothly here. Outside of cities and touristic areas, Italians as a rule, even young Italians, do not speak English. This isn’t France, after all, where they speak it and just pretend that they don’t. The result is that English speakers get frustrated, often. It’s delightful to fumble through a discussion in Italian when you’re at the bar or the produce market, and you can laugh, gesture and makes faces to help make yourself understood. Try doing that on the phone with the cable company, or the gas company, or when trying to make an appointment to get some important medical test run. Hell, it’s brought me to tears before, and that was with Comcast, in the US!

The first year I was here, every time I needed to make such a call, I’d try handing the phone to Paolo and get him to call for me. He soon started handing the phone right back to me, and I’d whine like my toddler does when she doesn’t get what she wants.  But he was right to make me talk on the phone. I have expat friends who still have to have someone—often me—call for them or be present to translate when they need to talk to the gas company or request service from their internet provider or speak to a contractor. When they try to do it on their own, as often as not, disaster ensues, because they thought they were explaining what they wanted or understood what was being told to them, and they were wrong.

This is what I call "Italian by immersion."
2. They stick to their own kind. See item #1. You can’t learn Italian if you speak English all day long. This is understandably more challenging for couples, who speak English to one another all the time. But the end result is most of them never sufficiently learn Italian. And beyond the language skills, they don’t integrate fully with their communities. In larger towns, they are the Americans next door who wave at their neighbors and say buongiorno but little else; in smaller towns, they are the curious stranieri whom the locals tolerate, may even like, but really don’t understand. And the reverse is also true. An expat who doesn’t socialize with Italians, invite them to dinner and accept invitations, participate in community festivals and pitch in and lend a hand where possible is never going to integrate into Italy. I’ll admit that stranieri in Italy are always going to be looked on as stranieri—I’m Paolo’s wife but I’m still always “la Americana.” But you don’t become part of a community while sitting in your living room talking to your spouse in English.

You can fight it, or you can embrace it...
3. They expect Italy to accommodate them. I spent several summers in Italy before moving here permanently four years ago. During those summers, I learned two things about how to cope with a culture and attitudes so very different from “back home.”  1. Accept that Italy is not a service-oriented culture, and 2. Suspend your expectations.

Expats who come here expecting good customer service, whether it’s in a restaurant or clothing store or on the phone with Sky Italia are going to get very frustrated, very quickly. I’m not saying it’s right that Italy is like this; I’m just saying that it is, and that it’s not going to change for a tableful of whiny Americans upset because they can’t get extra cheese on their pasta. In America, it is the norm to ask for extra cheese, expect free refills and happily exchange pleasantries with a bank teller, salesperson or customer service rep. But in Italy, these people do not give a fuck about you. Maybe they don’t in America either, but here, they don’t even try to fake it. 

Italy is far from perfect,
but you don't see this just anywhere...
That brings me to my second point, about suspending your expectations. Expats who come here expecting that things will go smoothly, according to their wishes and in a timely manner will be disappointed, every time. Italians themselves do not have these expectations, ever. On the plus side, when you abandon these expectations, on the rare occasion when things do happen in a smooth, timely manner and according to one’s wishes, it’s all the more gratifying since it is so rare.

4. They expect to change the culture. We all came here because we love Italy, right? And then after a while, we discover there are many unlovable things about Italy. At the top of my very long list is hunting, poor treatment of domestic animals, littering, and an every man (or woman) for himself attitude. The truth is, some of those hunters are our friends and family and while I may not like what they do, they are not monsters. So I just wince every time a shotgun goes off during hunting season—which where I live is pretty much all fall and winter—since I can’t stop the hunters from hunting.  I’ve ratted out my neighbors to the veterinary police, and I’ve picked up other people’s garbage. These are the things I can control.


Sure, there are things you can't get in Italy,
like a big American breakfast.
What I can’t control is how Italians do business, what time they eat, how complicated it is to get a driver’s license, or their exaggerated sense of the bella figura (essentially, saving face). Yet I have an expat friend who hosts his dinner parties at 6:30, wants to write letters to every state agency with which he’s been frustrated (and I’m guessing that’s a lot of letters), expects his Italian business colleagues to adjust to his very aggressive, very American style of doing business, and will regularly send restaurant food back if it’s not exactly to his liking. I’ve told him before and I will tell him again: you’re not going to change Italy, and Italy isn’t going to change for you.

5. They compare cultures—way too much. Yes, I miss peanut butter, Mexican food (fellow expat blogger Toni DeBella and I are of a like mind here), TJMaxx, air conditioning and customer service. Yes, I will, in conversation with Italians, occasionally and quite carefully say something like, “You know, in America, maybe we do ___ a little better than in Italy.” But expats who constantly wax nostalgic about how much more orderly, efficient, friendly, affordable, cleaner and less corrupt their home country is make me wonder why they left.
Or a gratuitously large burger...

I’ve noticed too that this waxing nostalgic (which is really just my nice way of saying “complaining”) has a snowball effect. Before you know it, you find yourself among a group of expats who are condemning just about everything about Italy and Italians—from how they drive, dress, smoke, drink, eat, probably even how they have sex. (For the record, in my limited experience, I have no complaints about the latter.) By doing the group lament, expats put even more space, more “otherness” between themselves and their adopted countrymen and women. It’s negative, isolating, and completely counter to their presumed mission of feeling happier and more at home in Italy.

Then again, maybe I’m lucky. Every time I start to miss the USA, another mass shooting occurs in the land of my birth, and I’m glad I live in a far less violent, trigger-happy, inexplicably prideful nation. I’m glad I live in a country and a continent that doesn’t poison bees and consider protest an act of treason. Sure, I still love the USA and I do miss it at times. But I made my bed of roses, and I’m willing—grateful, really—to lay in it, thorns and all.
But you don't get sh*t like this
just anywhere, either.

40 comments:

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    1. Thanks Kim! I really appreciate that you always read and comment. :)

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  2. Absolutely , you have to immerse yourself into the country you have taken as your home. I am British but even when going on holiday , I try and learn some of the language before I go.

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    1. Thanks Anne - I should have added that no part of the transition, learning the language, culture, etc., is easy. But it is certainly made harder when you surround yourself with English speakers!

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  3. Loved reading it! I see the same mistakes emigrants make in Australia..

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    1. Thanks Sophia - I'm guessing emigrants everywhere make the same mistakes. And there's no question that it's easier to hang out among your "own kind." Lunches or dinners out with English speaking friends are still a delight for me - there is a level of communication, understanding and nuance that I'm not sure I'll ever achieve with my Italians - even with my husband! LOL

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  4. So funny and so true! We are definitely 'stranieri' in our village, as we are not yet residents there but that's our plan. This is excellent advice for when we do make the move. I think the key is to be curious and respectful about the way of life you are joining, and try to understand it. You may never find it natural (after all, you haven't been schooled in the Italian way of life from your Mother's knee!). And as you say - don't try to make it like home otherwise why did you come in the first place?

    It's probably a bit out of date now, but the Tim Parks novels "Italian Neighbours" and "Italian Education" capture the differences wonderfully, especially the second book about watching his children 'become' Italians.

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    1. John - Thank you for you comment. There's no question that it's a difficult transition, but if we make the decision to move here, then I think we need to be "all in." Trying to make it like home only ends in disappointment. Where is the village you hope to one day call home?

      I will check out those books - thanks!
      Liz

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  5. Thank you Elizabeth! Being a Brit married to a Brit here, although we do have Italian friends and an Italian network, I have to admit guilt to just about all of the above. Especially the phone biz! I can hold a conversation faccia a faccia, but on the phone? Gaaah! *Must try harder* .. :-D

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    1. Ah Giselle - I'm the first to admit that I had an easier time of it (in some ways - in others, not so much!) by marrying an Italian, his family and his village. And I still love to get together and speak English with a bunch of friends; in fact, when I get the chance, it's rather difficult to shut me up! :)

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  6. This was great ! I'm half Italian and half american, grew up in Italy and now work in the US. Before living in the US Italy's idiosyncrasies where just the way things were. Of course I didn't enjoy waiting four and a half hours on the phone with ENI because they billed me for the wrong amount- just to speak to a very unhelpful person who suggested I visit their offices instead- but I didn't find it completely outrageous, and I would have never considered complaining. It only took a few years of good costumer service in the US to turn me into one of those grumpy expats you talk about who have a fit when the lady at the INPS has a bad attitude. But then when I'm here in the US I'll complain about how the waiters never leave you alone, the insurance companies are trying to bleed us dry and how hard it is to find good quality food for everyday meals (why is it that people think Subway will make a healthy lunch??!!!). So when I catch myself doing these things in either country I will stop, remember that I'm probably the only one who is bothered about the current situation and tell myself how lucky I am that I can choose which set of bad traits to experience daily. Most people don't have this choice.

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    1. It must be interesting to experience it in reverse...we always enjoy our visits to the US and don't stay long enough to get sick of it. But yeah, mass shootings, hateful politics, bloodsucking insurance companies...don't miss those!

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  7. It's all so true! Complementi on the blog!

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  8. I live in Torino, started blogging recently... But I find myself to be the opposite. The more I immerse myself in the culture the more disdain I have for mine back home. The "inefficiencies" that once bothered me I now translate like this: Everything in life has a price. Americans pay the price of perfectionism and efficiency with their precious time, the time they could be spending having a two hour talk with a friend over coffee, having an aperitivo or with their family. Work/life balance means I have to wait a little longer, respect the free times of business owners and I am willing to pay it for my Dolce Vita. HA! Thanks for the inspiration... Going to expand on this on my blog. :)

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    1. Interesting qtmavi...one thing I observed early on here - Americans live to work and Italians work so they can live. I do feel they savor and value their leisure time more than we allow ourselves to in the US - as you say - with the 2 hour coffee or an aperitivo or the obligatory Sunday lunch (that sometimes drives me a little nuts!). Thanks for reading and commenting!

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    2. Just came back from my obligatory Sunday lunch. LOL I ate so much that I can't even think of having dinner! :D Since I don't do it EVERY Sunday, I love it when I do. :) And quote (work to live or live to work) is something I use quite often to explain to people why I am here... thanks for responding. :)

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  9. Spot on. We're not gonna change anything, so we might as well enjoy the ride!

    I do think, however, that venting with "our own kind" is a necessary and therapeutic way of dealing with some of the hardships of moving here. I really struggled before reaching out to other expats. The girls I hang out with during the week are all locals, but my online relationships with other expats are the ones that allow me to relax a bit and gripe when necessary. I think that collective griping when in the presence of other expats can make it seem sometimes like we're falling into these habits too often, when it may just be (with some) a kind of venting.

    The other things that I found interesting was your part about comparing things. On the one hand, I totally agree. We shouldn't be constantly starting sentences with, "back home, we do it like this..." But at the same time, some comparison is healthy. I think we have a little bit of a responsibility to open the eyes of a VERY traditional culture... not to change it, but to make it better. Italy needs to start creating a more modern identity, in my opinion. So the more we can engage locals in conversations dealing with international perspectives, the better. (Within reason and tact, obviously!)

    great post!
    -M

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    1. M -
      I agree that we need a place to kvetch a little bit every now and then; I just get discouraged when it escalates into full-on Italy bashing. And it does seem like the people who struggle the most are those who make one or more of the "mistakes" I discussed here. But I agree with you that sometimes we're right to try to have some influence on the traditional culture; for me, it's especially important to do so where animals are concerned. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  10. Great post Elizabeth...one of the best summaries on the topic that I've read (certainly better than my own!). But I think the point is this: everyone is entitled to their own expat experience. If you want to isolate yourself and not learn Italian, that's fine. But then realize that you're really just on an extended vacation and you're not really "living" in Italy. Therefore, you've forfeited the right to complain when things don't go your way.

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    1. Rick - I agree with you 100%; we all have a right to our own experience. And I guess we all have a right to complain, too - but doing so doesn't really help make one any happier in Italy - or anywhere! Thanks for reading and commenting. :)

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  11. Perfect post, right on the money. I have come across many expats here that never integrate, and I never completely understood why they resist, and what they hope to achieve by trying to change the world around them. I have been living with one foot back in the states and one foot here (I am not far from you -- in Soriano nel Cimino -- Viterbo) for 29 years, moving back and forth. When I first came here, there was no question. I needed to learn the language, the customs, etc. or I would go crazy. It wasn't a big deal, and now I feel as much Italian as I do American. For what it is worth, you will not always be seen as "straniera". Over time, as you fully integrate, you simply have a slightly different accent. In all honesty, I am treated more like a local here than my wife ever was in the states.

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    1. MCK - I've been here for four years full-time, so still a "newbie." Sometimes I try to imagine what my life here will look/feel like in 20 years time, when I'm even more part of the community...will I feel more Italian or more American, or still sort of country-less, as I often feel now? Check back in 20 years and I'll let you know! ;) Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  12. Yes, I think diving deep into one's home country culture is an international reaction to living in a foreign culture. I live in California surrounded by immigrants from Mexico. Many of them have been here for decades and still don't understand the most basic English. I see how it limits their options, economics, etc etc. It doesn't look very pleasant to me - always being an 'outsider'. Speaking the language would make a huge difference in so many ways. I now volunteer - teach English to non English speakers. I think it helps...at least it helps me! I spent time in Italy a few years ago. I was traveling alone - very difficult after a few days of not having anyone to chat with. I'm planning to go back to Italy so now listen to language CD's in the car. Wish me luck!

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    1. Helena - You know, in some ways it is similar to immigrants to the US or any other foreign culture. Of course it feels safer and more comfortable to stay with your "own kind." But perhaps one difference is that many who immigrate to the US do so out of economic hardship or for human rights reasons - expats (at least as we use the term here) come to Italy for la dolce vita, so I'm always a little surprised when some don't try harder to embrace it and integrate.

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  13. Hello. A very good and interesting article. It is a shame that you felt the need to use the 'f' word, it did not seem appropriate here.

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    1. Thanks Eamonn. I do use profanity occasionally in my writing - and in my speech - but I try to limit its use and do so only for emphasis or when I think it might get a chuckle out of someone. What can I say? I am who I am! :)

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  14. Wonderful article, thanks so much! And you're SO right! I emigrated to Switzerland for years ago, my partner is Swiss and I am from Germany - so you would think, there isn't much to integrate. But far from! For sure Switzerland and Italy are very different, but what you say about integration counts here as well. And since I've started to speak the language, i.e. the local Swiss dialect ( which is really hard to speak for Germans) things got so much easier! Thanks for your writing and your clear words, very much appreciated!

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! Your mention of dialect reminded me that I may not even be speaking proper Italian, since I learned to speak "Alleronese," which of course is different from the dialect just 20 kms away. I wonder if my version of Italian would be understood in Milan! :)

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  15. What a great post! As an Italian who lives abroad and also writes a blog about my region Abruzzo (www.loveabruzzo.com) I would say it's spot on for every person going to permanently live in another country. I can especially imagine how Anglo-saxon people feel about our attitude to customer service, queues and religion...;) Must say most expats I've met in italy were really integrated as they have moved to Italy by choice, as they loved the culture as much as the food and the good weather- whilst here in London many expats community tend to stick to themselves and only see Britain as somewhere to work....interesting to see how it will evolve over time.

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    1. Thanks Serena! I do wonder if the difference in assimilating has to do with moving by choice vs moving by necessity. Most US/UK expats don't come here because they *have* to, whereas immigrants to the US/UK go for jobs or human rights reasons. Love your site, BTW! :)

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  16. Amen! (Although the hunting in Italy seems wonderfully diluted as I am from rural PA where schools and businesses close down to accomodate the first day of hunting season.Oh yes, yes they do.)

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    1. Ha - I lived in DC & MD and I remember what a big deal hunting was in PA. Still, I always pray for rain here on the days the hunt is open. ;) Thanks for reading! :)

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  17. #1 complaint about expats: they complain about other expats ;-)

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  18. My husband and I have lived in Umbria for 10 years now. I'm very happy, he isn't so much. I think one of the main differences is that I get out and about, speaking Italian and doing everyday stuff while he's largely housebound. I find reward and satisfaction in superficial contact with people while he misses real friendship more than I do.

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    1. Damaris - I admit that I too miss close friendships and the nuanced communication that comes from speaking one's own language, so I get where your husband is coming from. But like you say, you gotta get out of the house! :) Thanks for reading & commenting.

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  19. As a recent expat from Milano to California, I'm reading this from the opposite point of view and finding it really amusing :)
    We moved here just three months ago, and I'm still struggling with the overfriendliness of waiters and representatives in general. In the beginning I found it downright creepy, now I'm slowly getting used to it.
    The language part does not really apply, as I think that moving to the US without speaking at least some English is practically impossible. Moreover, English is such a regular and simple language and I sympathize with any anglophone who has to learn my lovely but oh-so-full of exceptions mother tongue.
    There are a lot of things we, as expats, still find weird and probably always will, but the subject of this post will probably inspire me to write something similar about the italian expat community. Thank you for your perspective :)

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  20. Thanks for your perspective. I share your opinion.

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