How is living in Italy as an expat?
Well, let’s see. I have interviewed quite a few people for this section now and it seems that living in Italy is hard but incredibly beautiful as well. Getting used to this crazy country can be challenging but there are a lot of rewards. Bureaucracy might try to kill you but there’s always a glass of prosecco to save your life.
That’s also the point of view of Jasmine, the lovely Canadian lady who I am interviewing in this post. Jasmine is from Alberta and now lives in Bergamo, a really nice town in the north of Italy – which makes me quite curious about her experience because living in Bergamo is not exactly like being in Rome or Florence, that’s provincial Italy at its best!
Besides working as a translator and consultant, Jasmine has a wonderful blog called Questa Dolce Vita, where she shares her adventures in Italy. I have read some posts when I came across her on Instagram and I found it adorable. There you’ll find articles about amazing places in Italy, tips about learning Italian, some serious thoughts about how hard it is to come to terms with Italian bureaucracy and also some hilarious posts like the one regarding the mistakes English speakers make while speaking Italian.
Therefore, I totally recommend you check her blog, if you want to know more about real life in Italy as an expat. But it’s time to let her speak now!
Hello Jasmine! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. First of all, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your life and work?
Hi! Thanks to you for interviewing expats like me. My name is Jasmine, I’m 28 years old, born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I studied at the University of Alberta and came out with a degree in pharmacy and what I like to call an undeclared minor in passion for the Italian language! During my university years, I ended up meeting my husband at a club one summer night. He turned out to be in Edmonton doing research for his Engineering Master’s degree but was actually Italian and I guess you could say that’s when I decided to start studying Italian as well!
I practiced community pharmacy for just about two years before moving to Italy where I now take advantage of my university Italian courses in doing translation (from Italian to English), localization, and consulting work for an Italy-based cosmetics packaging company. In my spare time, I also write the blog Questa Dolce Vita which basically chronicles my life as a Canadian expat in Italy with a focus on all the immigration headaches and cultural adjustments that come with living abroad.
When was your first time in Italy? What was your first impression of Italy and how has your opinion of the country changed living here?
My first time in Italy was probably almost nine years ago now, after having dated my then-boyfriend for just a few months. My first impression of Italy was probably consistent with everyone’s first impression- it was just like a dream. Honestly, my opinion of the country hasn’t changed since living here, for me, Italy is and will always be a dream.
It has been more challenging than perhaps I anticipated but I don’t expect Italy to change for me, I’ve always been of the mindset that you need to adapt to where you choose to live. If you want to be sipping prosecco under blooming wisteria with a view of the Mediterranean Sea on the weekends, you also have to put up with the not-so-pretty aspects of the country as well.
How long have you been living in Italy now? How did you manage to actually move here?
I’ve been in Italy for two years now and it was quite a long process although I shouldn’t complain because I have been very fortunate in this respect compared to many others who find it difficult to legally realize the move. Canada and Italy offer a Youth Exchange Program to young people between the ages of 18-35 which allows for a working holiday visa. It’s what my husband took advantage of to live and work in Canada while I was still studying and in turn, I was able to use it for my first year in Italy.
After that year, as I had already been working with a particular company, they then applied for a work visa for me to stay another year. So essentially I was able to live and work legally in Italy for two years, independent of having any Italian ancestry or sponsorship from a spouse. However, it worked out that we were married last September and therefore our immigration adventures are soon to be over as non-Italians who marry an Italian citizen can apply for citizenship after two years of marriage and residency in Italy.
I’m already dreading this though, because I’ve heard that the paperwork involved is absolute insanity. It’s also one of the reasons why, upon returning to Canada this summer, I chose not to legally change my name. Since this is not a common practice in Italy, you require extra paperwork when applying for citizenship essentially explaining why you’ve had a name change and why you have your Italian husband’s last name which is not consistent with your birth certificate. So I decided to save myself the trouble!
You live in Bergamo, which is quite a provincial town. Was it easy to get used to living here?
Bergamo is quite a provincial town indeed! I think it’s the perfect size though, when I go into Milan, I can’t imagine living amongst the hustle and bustle and all the tourists. But I do think that the advantage of the bigger cities is that the people there are a better mix of cultures and perhaps there is a tiny bit more tolerance than in the smaller cities or towns. This also makes it difficult when you want to have a particular ethnic food, you can find everything in Milan while it’s slim pickings in Bergamo.
Regarding Italian culture in general, what is the biggest culture shock you experienced?
The biggest culture shock, besides the bureaucracy which I’ll save for the next question, has been the lack of cultural awareness towards other nationalities. Coming from Canada, I grew up with a multitude of friends from different backgrounds, was always at houses where different languages were spoken in addition to English or French, and most Canadians in the metropolitan cities are at least somewhat familiar with a wide range of religions and foods.
Currently in Italy, sushi is extremely fashionable, but I’ve found that if you ask someone, for example, where the best pho is, they probably wouldn’t know. I’ve also been shocked to hear people ask me where I’m from, not being satisfied with my answer because people who look like me aren’t “Canadian”.
Speaking of cultural differences, is there something you still cannot get used to and probably never will?
I will never get used to the bureaucracy. I have literally wasted entire days waiting at the Questura without achieving anything and being told to return the next day. I have had to take time off work to collect documents and fight for a place in line because there are no numbers given. I have had many a breakdown in these instances because, I’m sorry to say, this kind of inefficiency is just not a norm in Canada.
I went to get a passport renewal when I came back to Canada on vacation and I was in and out of the office in less than thirty minutes, despite the fact that it was very busy. There was an organized line-up, a numbers system, a sufficient number of people working, and a pre-screening area. Italy needs to get on board with these things but I fear it never will, it’s now become too much a part of the way of life.
Do you feel that Italy has changed you? If so, in what ways?
Italy has made me far less materialistic and more able to appreciate my surroundings and the simple pleasures like good food, good wine, and good company. The lifestyle is what enchants people about Italy, it’s certainly not the bureaucracy.
I’m more spontaneous now, because Italy does not like planning, it likes to introduce a sciopero during your Roman vacation or indulge in extended coffee breaks that interrupt any well-thought out schedule. The Italians know how to go with the flow and enjoy the moment. The trains aren’t running? That’s ok, what a great excuse to sit and chat over an Aperol spritz, or just have a little passeggiata in the meantime!
Based on your experience, do you have recommendations for people wanting to move to Italy or simply dreaming about it?
I only give people two pieces of advice:
LEARN ITALIAN FIRST. Come with at least an intermediate level. I have seen far too many expats crash and burn because their entire experience is made less sweet by the bitter aftertaste of not understanding anything or anyone around you and basically being a bystander in your own day-to-day life. It often astounds me how many people overlook this small fact when moving to a new country, especially with the idea of living there for an extended period of time.
The fact that you are immersed in the language doesn’t mean anything unless you are extremely proactive and aggressive with your language-learning, in which case, I have seen expats learn Italian without any prior studying. But this does not describe most people’s approach to learning which is why you need to start studying before departure.
DO NOT PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET, COME DURING SHOULDER SEASON FOR A LONGER PERIOD OF TIME BEFORE MOVING. Everyone wants to live in Italy. They want to live in Italy because all they know of her is her best side- summers on the beach, dinners during sunset with the glow of candles and a sunburn, everything made more beautiful due to the sunshine, Italian men in tiny bathing suits, and lots of cocktails. But summer doesn’t last forever and living in Italy is different from being a tourist in Italy.
That’s why I suggest that people come during a different season and try to go about living life as a resident and not a tourist. Go to the grocery store and carry your bags up a fifth-floor walk-up apartment where there is hot water only sporadically and your landlord ignores your calls for days and it’s cold and damp and you’re not out sipping bubbly in the piazza until 2 am because you need to get up and go to work the next day. After experiencing this, then make your decision.
Let’s speak of tourism. What would you recommend to people visiting Italy for the first time, so that they can have the best Italian experience possible?
It’s a very cliché thing to say, but I would recommend staying away from the famed cities and explore the small towns. I don’t think the Italian experience is in waiting hours in line to then run through the Uffizi, nor is it in paying 200 euro for a 10-minute ride in a gondola.
The real Italy is in discovering a middle-of-nowhere Tuscan town and settling into an osteria where the menu is recited to you (in dialect, not Italian, not English) but there really isn’t a point anyways because the owner just tells you what you’re going to have, he knows best. It’s in those hidden crevices, far away from the crowds. It’s the places that no one thinks of going to because their friends and families won’t be impressed by the names.
Let’s say that a tourist wants to visit Bergamo. Where would you take him or her?
I would start in the lower town and take her up on a small hike using one of the many ancient stairs leading up to the upper city. I would avoid taking the funicular which is a tourist favorite, at least on the way up. Part of Bergamo’s beauty is in these pathways up to the medieval city that is surrounded by walls.
We could then explore some of the underground lookouts where in the past they would guard the city from invasions (in Bergamo, they never fired one cannon). Then we would have a gelato, but not just any gelato, we would have the flavor stracciatella from the gelateria that invented it which is still flourishing in the same spot and run by the same family.
How was your experience with learning Italian? Was it difficult for you to learn it?
It is sometimes hard to think back because it’s been over eight years since I started studying it, and yet I am still learning it. I had a Spanish teacher once tell me that people only learn languages for one of two reasons: for survival or for love. You have to need or love the language, or both, to learn it. If you don’t need it (and this is often the case for expats, they might work in an English-speaking environment and surround themselves with English-speaking friends), you will never speak it. The same goes for if you don’t love it.
Prior to Italian, I had been studying Russian and honestly speaking, in comparison, Italian was “easier”. Russian requires the learning of an entire new alphabet and you actually have to learn how to write all over again. Italian, in terms of reading and writing, is a phonetic language. The difficulty for me has been more in pronunciation (my Anglo-tongue hates the letter R and certain letter combinations that produce a sound that is not used in English) and of course, the dreaded complexities of verb tenses. But I have to admit that I adore the language and this has been integral in learning.
Do you have tips for people studying Italian?
Be diligent and be consistent. People often ask me how I learnt Italian, as if it’s something that you do once and check off a list. But it’s not like that at all, I still “study” every day by speaking, reading, and listening to or watching Italian programs. You need to dedicate 10-15 minutes to a language each and every day to make progress. I still write down new words or expressions and this is after three years of university Italian, a year of continuing education Italian, private tutors, and living in Italy. It is a never-ending process.
Also, people need to approach the language in ways that interest them– do you like rap music? Then start listening to Italian rappers, don’t try to force yourself to listen to Laura Pausini just for the sake of learning Italian. Direct your efforts into things that you enjoy and it’ll pay off.
Thank you Jasmine for your time and for your super interesting answers!