Cross-cultural living for American expat Elizabeth in Italy

Though there are some things that Elizabeth misses about the USA, "home" for her now is Rome, Italy, where she's been living for more than two decades. She describes how and why she came to Rome, her job there, and what every would-be expat should take with him or her to Italy.
Elizabeth and Lenny Rabbit

-Where were you born?
I grew up in Connecticut and went to college in Massachusetts, USA.

-In which country and city are you living now?
Rome, Italy

-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my Italian husband, our two children (18 and 19) and a dwarf rabbit.

-How long have you been living in Italy?
I have been in Rome for 27 years.

-What is your age?

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Italy?
I wanted to go abroad for a year after college and I found a one-year position as a student-teacher at an American high school in Rome. I had passed through Rome on a backpack-around-Europe trip the summer before, but I hadn’t studied Italian, I don’t have a drop of Italian blood in my veins and back in 1980 no one had even heard of a cappuccino or dining “al fresco.”

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
I eventually got a student visa (a long story) -- they were very different times back then.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
For those first years I was under an extension of my parent’s policy. Later, I got on the Italian National Health Service and now we have an additional major medical plan with an Italian insurance company that also covers us when we travel to the US and other countries outside the EU.

-How do you make your living in Italy? Do you have any type of income generated?
After my year at the school, I found a shared apartment and worked for an American-based summer music festival in Rome that paid me from the US. I also gave the usual dose of English lessons, wrote articles and even home-schooled children on two different films that were being made/edited in Rome –- again paid from the US. I survived through fat and lean times those first years.

Tired of not being able to work legally, I returned to the US and started a master’s degree. Halfway into the won out and I returned the next summer a married woman. The work front became much easier and within four months I was hired by a small international development organization where I stayed for seven years in Donor Relations and Grants Management. After my second child, I left full-time work to finish my Masters of Science in Management.

With a graduate degree in hand and kids in school, I looked for a new job. It was very, very hard to get back into the work force (women do not exit and re-enter as a rule here and almost never with children) and it took a long time before I got a short-term contract with an American university, followed by another international development organization and finally a global cultural exchange organization where I became Director of Italian operations.

When the head office enacted a worldwide post 9/11 downsizing strategy (starting with Italy and China), I gathered together my years of experience and know-how in the area of Cross-Cultural Communications and, after further study, I now train, consult, speak and write in this field for educational institutions, organizations and businesses.

It has not been a straight road and realistically the options here are very limited for foreigners. Looking back, I would have gotten an Italian university degree – really the only way to be considered for professional jobs outside those within the international community. The other option is to start your own business. The internet has opened up lots of new opportunities to do business anywhere while living in Italy.

rainbow in italy

-Do you speak Italian and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
It is essential to speak the language as quickly as possible. It does not come automatically, you have to study and work at it by pushing yourself to participate in full-immersion situations. We speak Italian at home, so my problem is making sure my children speak English!

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Sure. Luckily my husband loves New England and we used to go every summer as a family when the children were small. Now it is more difficult with all their comings and goings, but I go to the US at least once a year. I am in that phase where the US is really not home anymore. It’s called the “hidden immigrant” syndrome. I look and talk like I belong, but I really don’t. I have kept up with a handful of friends from high school and college, but it takes effort to maintain these ties.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
I am here. This is my home. I will be doing more writing on cross-cultural issues and grow my consultancy/training business.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
What I paid in rent back in the early 1980s is not relevant today! We bought our first apartment in 1985, a good deal too, but not relevant today either. The market (both rental and for sale) is very high right now.

-What is the cost of living in Italy?
Much, much higher than it used to be, especially housing.

-What do you think about the Italians?
All my long-term expat friends agree – we are and will always be foreigners to the Italians, even after 20-30 years in Italy with Italian husbands, children, jobs, citizenship and lives, we are “straniere”. This can have its benefits, although it also means that you never really, intimately belong to the Italian inner world. Otherwise, the Italians are, well, Italian –- see my cross-cultural blog for daily insights, Although we have a lot to learn from the Italians, I have found that the most interesting part of living abroad is finally understanding my own American culture in contrast. I no longer ask, “Why do they…” and instead ask, “Why do I….” This is what I address in my blog. Cross-cultural communications begins at home – understanding your own culture before accessing another.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Italy?
I have moved way beyond the starry-eyed phase. While the food, art, beauty, and Italian life-style are all wonderful, I now worry about the significant difference in the two “O”’s: Optimism and Opportunity, in particular for my children as they will soon seek out professional roads to travel, which may have to take them abroad.

On the positive side, Italian culture defines a balance between the harsh Anglo-American cultures based on the individual and driven by time, and the Eastern cultures that are too different and impenetrable – a meeting place along all cultural spectra that is its fatal allure.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Italy?
Make sure to pack the following:
* Flexibility,
* A large dose of curiosity that will push you to explore the “whys” behind the new ways of thinking and doing that you will encounter,
* A new sense of time in which relationships, not schedules are the slave-drivers.
* Patience, lots of it -- it takes time to absorb, interpret and accept cultural differences.
* An infinite sense of humor and perspective. There is never a dull day when living outside your cultural comfort zone, even after 27 years!

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Italy?
My blog on cross-cultural moments,, presents daily vignettes with a cross-cultural lesson and a balanced view of Italian (and American) cultural mysteries.

If you are thinking of moving to Italy and want lots of practical information, the best site is:

Once you are here, check out: