5 Crucial Mistakes Expats Make in Italy

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.

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.

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!

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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 nocomplaints 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.

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