|Back when she was a teenager, California girl Sheila discovered she wanted to live in Italy. She has been living that dream for several years now. Here she shares some of the joys and challenges of living and working in Italy, particularly in the area near Florence where she and her husband make their home. This American expat also gives some tips about multicultural communication that new expats and expats-to-be would do well to remember.
-Where were you born?
I was born in California, USA and lived there all my life before moving abroad.
-In which country and city are you living now?
I am living in a small town outside of Florence, Italy called San Francesco. Funny, I lived north of San Francisco, California for many years.
-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my Italian husband and his mother and father.
-How long have you been living in Italy?
I lived in the city center of Florence, Italy (off and on) for several years and have been living in San Francesco for over a year.
-What is your age?
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Italy?
I made my first trip to Italy when I was 18 years old. I spent three months with an Italian family in Parma, as an exchange student, and knew from that moment that I wanted to live in Italy.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?
Well, not easy and very time consuming. Pazienza (patience) is what you need, and a lot of it! Being married to an Italian helps for the work permit, if you're not already a member of the EU.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
When I first came to Italy, I had private health insurance from the States and took care of my medical visits when I returned home for short periods to California. If I had to see a doctor in Italy during that time, I saw private ones (who spoke English) for the tourist and expat community and paid cash for my visits. Later, I purchased a private expat health insurance from the States which covered me, if I lived outside of the US for at least six months per year, for catastrophic medical events both in Italy and at home. Again, all my other visits to private doctors in Italy (at that time) were paid for by me, in cash. I found it difficult to get medical insurance in Italy, in the beginning, but it was possible with my initial visa, once I became a resident of San Francesco and received an Italian carta d'identita.
Now that I am married, I am part of the system. I have a health insurance card and a private family doctor (who only speaks Italian). I still have to pay for tests and some medical exams, but I think the cost is much, much lower than what I would pay in the States. I also have to pay for some prescribed medicines, while others are free. In sum, I am treated like any Italian would be at this point. I receive the same healthcare, and pay exactly the same fees that they are required to pay at my age.
-How do you make your living there? Do you have any type of income generated?
I started as an English teacher working for a private language school in the historic city center of Florence. I worked there for two years. Later, I was involved in the opening of a teacher training center with two other American women and worked there as the academic director and principal teacher trainer.
I am currently doing teacher training online for several Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification programs. I also market several onsite and online teacher training certificates and have included several teaching English in Italy options and programs through my website: http://www.teachingenglishinitaly.com
-Do you speak Italian and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs.
Yes, I speak Italian and am always improving and learning. If one is to integrate here in Italy and get around in daily life, it is very important to at least know the basics of Italian. Italians are also very concerned with what they call making a "bella figura" and so, impressions, presentations, and appearances are extremely important to them. It is important to respect their codes for dress, eating, and social ways for engaging and interacting with one another.
Making a bad impression is something Italians never, ever, want to do!
-Do you miss home and family sometimes? Describe your favorite recreational activities there or those that are available.
I miss eating all the ethnic foods that I used to eat in California mostly, Mexican and Thai food. I enjoy eating family meals at the table with my husband and his family, here in Italy. Italians eat out less, and like eating Italian food. I also enjoy taking the train to Florence to visit friends and all the wonderful things there is to see and do--just walking through the piazzas of Florence is something I love to do!
-Do you have other plans for the future?
I plan on working on my Italian citizenship, and expanding my business. I also plan on enjoying life in the present.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I live with my husband and his family in their family home. They have lived here since 1962. When I was in Florence, I paid anywhere from 450 euro (per month) for a room with a family (including utilities) in the city center; 250 euro (per month) for a room in a basement without a window and with a lot of mold (including utilities) just outside the city center; and 500 euro per month (excluding utilities) for a room in an apartment, which I shared with two other roommates in the city center of Florence.
-What is the cost of living in Italy?
High as compared to the average salary.
-What do you think about the Italians?
I found it difficult to make friends with Florentines in Florence. Someone once told me, "Florentines are born together, grow up together, and die together." They are very close and don't seem to find introducing foreigners to their group, as a permanent member, to be part of their make-up. I admire their loyalty.
Most of my friends in Florence are English-speaking expats, which is understandable, since we share a common language and similar (if not, same) cultural background.
I have found my husband's friends who live in a small town outside of Florence to be very warm, welcoming, and friendly towards me.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Italy?
- the fantastic food and its freshness, the respect and appreciation for eating well.
- the fascinating people who are, usually, full of character and life!
- the works of art, the places to visit and experience.
- the support and connection to family.
- living much more in the present.
- Italian bureaucracy, including the inconsistency in answers and information provided.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Italy?
Be flexible and open. Don't expect things to work like they do back home. Be patient, live in the present, and don't try to force your culture onto a culture that is not your own.
Here is a list of helpful tips for avoiding intercultural misunderstanding in Italy and all other countries:
-Don't assume sameness.
-Understand that what you perceive to be normal behavior may only be cultural.
-Realize that familiar behaviors have different meanings.
-Recognizing a behavior is not the same as understanding it.
-Don't assume that what you meant is what was understood.
-Don't assume that what you understood is what was meant.
-Realize that most people, even Italians, do behave rationally; you just have to discover their rationale.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Italy?
My site http://www.teachingenglishinitaly.com provides several online and onsite options and opportunities for teaching and learning more about italian culture through teaching (and learning to teach) English in Italy. It also includes helpful information about living and working as an English teacher in Italy through the FAQ's:
and useful list of resources:
I also like: http://www.cyberitalian.com for learning how to speak or improve your Italian online in a self-study or tutored course.