Wow, can you imagine a life in a small Italian town without knowing a word of Italian?
Well, this is basically what Susan Zimmerman, the lady I am interviewing today, had to face when she arrived in Italy, after marrying her Italian husband. It must have been challenging to say the least and Susan is great at describing how she felt and how she managed to overcome the frustration of being in a completely foreign environment without knowing the language.
As it always happens in expats’ interviews, this chat is full of really interesting things to reflect on, on Italy and Italian culture obviously, but also on the way certain challenges deeply transform us and make us completely different – and better – human beings. At a certain point, Susan says that she is less sure of herself now, but I’d say she should be super proud of herself for having been able to face such a challenge. You are doing an awesome job, Susan!
She will tell you more about herself in the interview, let me just recommend you to check her blog Our Texan-Italian Life, where she writes about her adventures in Italy. As with many other interviews before, this post is quite long but I simply couldn’t take things out, they are too precious. I always feel really honored to be able to interview people with such interesting things to say and who are willing to share a bit of their personal life with me (and you, dear readers).
Well, it’s time to let Susan speak!
Hello Susan! 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, Cinzia! Thank you so much for letting me participate in your blog. I am so excited, especially as I have loved learning Italian through your Instagram page. Since my husband and I were married over two years ago, I have been living in Italy.
Before that, I was working as a Research Assistant in a laboratory at a prestigious research hospital in the heart of Dallas, Texas. For years I studied the kidneys, their development, and disease models. Imagine me in a white lab coat and safety goggles, and you pretty well get the picture. It included a lot of hours leaning over a lab bench, but I loved it. Always searching for answers and learning things that no one else had yet discovered; to me it was thrilling!
Unfortunately, in my area of Italy, that kind of work is not exactly easy to find so now I work for a Women’s Health blog site, using my research skills and understanding of biology to “translate” the research coming out of labs into everyday language for people to more easily understand. It’s not the lab, but it is convenient that I can work from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection! It comes in handy as my husband is a pilot in the Aeronautica Militare, and we likely will be moving around Italy a few more times. For now, we are in the Treviso area with our Doberman, Beau, but who knows where the future will take us! Likely back down South.
the vineyards in Valdobbiadene
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 trip to Italy was in March 2016 shortly after my husband and I were engaged. My first impression was how incredibly beautiful the cities and their architecture are. When you walk through the cities, the seemingly unimportant little corner is beautifully adorned with carved masonry and flowers.
I found the rituals of eating charming, even if a bit confusing at first. No milk in your coffee after noon, second courses only after first courses – I had never even heard of first and second courses, let alone understand what constitutes them. Now that I have been here for a while, I have had time for the rose-colored glasses to come off.
Beneath the tapestry and pretty varnish, there is a little chaos and disorder it seems. Systems are convoluted, it takes awhile to get things done, and business is often at the convenience of the proprietor rather than the patron. The fact that it is 2019 and I have to pay money to call some companies’ Customer Service still baffles me – I had never done that until I lived here.
Not that we don’t have our own issues in America, but I was accustomed to a lot of convenience and very little wait time. It was quite a shock to have to unlearn all that expectation of functionality. I still love the country, its nature, and its trappings, but dealing with the bureaucracy, banks, businesses, and post offices has jaded me a little bit to how effectively it works.
You are married to an Italian man, which means that you have married his family too! Jokes aside, do you see any difference in family relationships between Italy and the US?
Yes, that is the old saying! And it is true! The biggest difference I have noticed is that it seems to me that Italian families are more open with each other – it seems that no topic is too personal to discuss and to discuss amongst each other. Kid you not, I had my grandmother-in-law tell me I had a “grande culo” – I was so surprised, speechless in fact because it was obvious she wasn’t intending to be rude; she was just stating the fact as I am not quite as slim as the average Italian. Americans often use euphemisms when we discuss touchy subjects, so the frankness was unexpected (P.S. You must tell me the Italian secret for eating so many carbs while staying thin! It’s incredible!).
One of the other things I have noticed is the closeness of the Italian family – both figuratively and literally. Whereas my family is spread out all over America, my husband’s family all lives quite close to each other comparatively; the majority of them are in neighboring towns. Because of that, we are able to have lots of get-togethers and see each other quite often, even apart from holidays and birthdays. It’s really amazing, and it has helped me feel like I have really become a part of his family even though, at first, we were separated by language and culture.
You live in a small town near Treviso, which is quite a provincial town (as most of Italy is, actually!). Was it easy to get used to living here?
Yes, provincial is definitely the right word for it. Step right outside the little town square and you will find fields and livestock. I love it. On a perfectly clear morning, a morning after a heavy rainstorm so there isn’t any humidity in the air, you have a perfect view of the Venetian Alps. We are close enough that you can just barely make out the monument on top of Monte Grappa. It is absolutely stunning!
Having lived in Texas most of my life, or by the ocean when I was at university, I must say having the mountains in my backyard is quite spectacular! Even though it is small, we are only 20 minutes from Treviso. However, I don’t think I will ever get used to the number of sheep I see around my area! It’s even funnier when you have to stop to let the sheep cross from one pasture to another.
I have read on your blog that before moving to Treviso, you have lived near Lecce. Do you miss the south? How was your experience there?
Oh man, talk about provincial! Compared to where we live now, living in Galatone was really in the middle of nothing! Plenty of olive groves and barley fields though. Living there was much harder. I had only just arrived in Italy and didn’t know the language. Our house was far outside the city, and we only had one car (a manual, which I didn’t know how to drive when I first moved), so I was fairly isolated during the day. I had a lot of growing pains in Lecce.
Before coming to Italy I had never been overseas at all, so I think that also affected my outlook. This wasn’t a vacation; this was to be my new home. I couldn’t just fly by, not worrying about the day-in, day-out necessities; I had to learn everything anew because I was going to be there for the foreseeable future.
Besides the isolation of the locale, I was in a whole new world where everything I saw was foreign to me – many of the brands of cars here I had never seen before; the road signs were all different (and not necessarily intuitive); the business hours are all different (I was so surprised when I had a massive migraine at noon and my husband said we couldn’t go to the pharmacy until they reopened at 4 because often Italian businesses close few a few hours midday); the post office does more than just sending mail, and you need to know that you have to buy the padded envelopes at the cartoleria or tabaccheria – NOT at the post office as I had always done before; all the brands of foods were different at the grocery store and naturally everything is in Italian, so grocery shopping alone was a process as I was having to use my translator to be sure I was getting the kind of meat or flour I wanted.
Galatina, an example of pietra leccese
One of the first times I went to the grocery store there, I was trying to get fruits and vegetables, but the machine for weighing and tagging produce was giving me trouble, but I didn’t realize what to do because I didn’t understand the Italian instructions. The man waiting right behind me started talking to me, presumably telling me what to do – it may have been dialect rather than Italian in all honesty – but either way, it was all Greek to me! His words were almost literally falling on deaf ears. All I could do was nod and smile like an idiot until I figured it out. It really was like living your life as an adult and then suddenly reverting back to infancy – if you can’t communicate effectively, little tasks become Herculean.
Other than the bumps and bruises of learning a new way of life, it truly was beautiful around Lecce. The city of Lecce itself is amazing to walk through with all their pietra leccese, which is the particular kind of limestone they have in that region that is ideal for carving. During Spring and Summer living there was beyond compare – the seas in Salento are extraordinary! Some weekends we would just take a drive all around the peninsula looking for new beaches to visit. Being up North in the shadow of the mountains, I sometimes find myself wishing for the smell of the salty air. In truth, if I had to pick sea or mountains, I would choose the sea every time.
Regarding Italian culture in general, what is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Speaking of cultural differences, is there something you still cannot get used to and probably never will?
In reality, the hardest thing was really the language, but I don’t think that necessarily falls under the category of culture. The biggest culture shock I had and still have is people’s proximity and their manners in public. In America, we have HUGE personal space bubbles and having someone standing so close to me while talking was a little unsettling! Even standing in line at the grocery store, perfect strangers are comfortable standing only a couple of centimeters away. The hardest thing for me is waiting in line for something and having people physically touching me, as if being so close will somehow make the line move faster.
At a busy bar in centro, getting your coffee is often “first-come, first-served,” but in reality it is whoever is willing to push their way through the crowd. Queuing up properly ends up being more of an adversarial game with your caffeine-seeking compatriots, trying to edge your way in front of others rather than patiently waiting your turn. This is something I don’t think I will ever become accustomed to; where I was from I was taught that this is exceptionally rude and wouldn’t be tolerated. It’s harder to accept cultural differences when they crossover into the area of what your culture considers impolite or ill-mannered.
Susan in front of the Duomo, Milan
I have the feeling that living abroad changes the way you are. Do you feel that Italy has changed you? If so, in what ways?
I agree 1000% that living abroad changes you. It opens your mind and broadens your perspective in ways I think many Americans may be missing out on considering we don’t have so many cultures in our vicinity. We are the great melting pot, and we are more than happy to assimilate cultures and cuisines that are brought to us, but it’s different when you are the little fish in the new culture.
Without a doubt I know I have changed, positively and negatively. I am a little less sure of myself now than I was in America, which is something I’m struggling to fix; I had always been a headstrong extravert, but when you struggle with communication, one tends to become a little introverted. Living up North I am surrounded by a lot of Veneto dialect, which throws me off every now and again when I have to talk to people in my area where dialect is spoken first and Italian second. Thankfully I am getting better! My husband’s family all speak dialect amongst themselves, so at least I have plenty of family who can help me learn.
On the positive side, Italy has made me more patient. In America, as I mentioned before, we expect expediency and/or efficiency in almost all parts of our lives, and we have become impatient as a people it seems to me. Here things take time – even dinners out take two to three hours! People here don’t like to be rushed I’ve noticed. In many ways, this may be a good thing. Being here has forced me to slow down and enjoy life.
Another positive change is that Italians don’t take simple pleasures for granted and now neither do I. In America you can find pretty much any kind of food you want at any time. Here in Italy, food is seasonal – the appearance of certain foods can demarcate the seasons and is often celebrated with festivals which I find so endearing. Now that I have been here for a few years, it feels likes Spring to me when I finally see strawberries in the market; Summer tastes like fresh cherries and watermelons; Fall is near at hand when the grapes start coming off the vines; the smell of Winter to me is roasted chestnuts and marroni in the city center. Outside of those time periods certain produces cannot be found at the market, so you take the time to enjoy them while you have them.
Let’s speak about tourism. What would you recommend to people visiting Italy for the first time, so that they can have the best Italian experience possible?
Oh goodness, there is so much to say! Even though I live near Venice, I would more highly recommend Rome or Florence for first-timers. While the Venetian canals are very picturesque, there is just more to see and do in Rome or Florence. They are my favorite cities by far, with Rome being my absolute favorite. They are overflowing with cultural sites, and they generally are very simple to navigate on foot; even though Rome is large, the metro is pretty user-friendly. There are so many amazing sites to see in either one of these cities that it is just hard to go wrong. My husband and I spent five days in Rome around Festa della Repubblica, and by the end I still wished I had more time.
From my experience, here are a few tips for the Rome area:
– For those who want to go to the Vatican Museum, go early. The line will already be forming an hour before it opens. It is well worth taking your time to go through it all – there is barely a square inch that is unadorned.
– Obviously, the Coliseum is a major go-to, and I would recommend that you get the audio tour; you will learn bits about the Coliseum that you would definitely miss just walking around. But keep your eyes peeled for little treasures! There was a carved stone with a cross we found on a column that said “Kissing the Holy Cross, One Acquires A year and 11 Days of Indulgences.” I’m not sure how many people have kissed that cross, and I’m not sure it’s history, but we kissed it for good measure! One more thing for the Coliseum that we experienced: be careful about buying your ticket in advance; the line for pre-purchased tickets was 2 hours long, while the line to purchase tickets only lasted 30 minutes.
the cross at the Coliseum
– For those who love the off-the-beaten-path adventures and have time to travel outside the main parts of Rome, on Aventine Hill there is the Headquarters of the Knights of Malta. Through the keyhole of their door, there is a direct view of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s just a little peek, a simple little thing really, but it felt like being told a secret. Afterwards, a walk through the Orange Gardens down the way will give you a stunning panorama of the eternal city. Another great panoramic view is on Janiculum (Gianicolo) Hill, the second highest of Rome’s seven hills; here tourists will also find the Garibaldi statue.
Besides specifics on where to go, I think the biggest piece of advice I could give is to learn a little bit about the culture before you go and plan your day around food (yes, really, plan your day around your delicious Italian food!). Otherwise, there is a great risk for a bad experience simply from not knowing how things work here or expecting them to work like they do in America or whichever country they may be from.
For example: if you ask for a pepperoni pizza, you may likely end up with a peperoni pizza. So don’t be surprised when your pizza is covered with bell peppers and not little slices of meat! Pepperoni doesn’t exist here in the way Americans think of it. An American who wants to try an “authentic” pepperoni pizza should ask for a pizza alla diavola or a pizza with salamino piccante.
Another food-related item (can you tell I love food??) tourists should be aware that eating hours are different here, and there are some food “rules.” Breakfast is much simpler, typically consisting of a pastry and coffee that we get at the bar (not the American kind of bar). My go-to is a cornetto con marmellata all’albicocca, a brioche with apricot marmalade, and un cappuccino con cacao in polvere, a cappuccino with cocoa powder on top. It may seem strange to tourists, but we really do often eat this delicious breakfast while standing at the bar; you pay for it at the register beforehand, so it’s quite convenient to stand at the bar, eat, then just walk right out and give your spot to the next person. Getting a coffee with milk after breakfast is a faux pas. It’s more common up North, but in the South I had Northern friends who wouldn’t even dare ask for a macchiato in the afternoon for fear of a scolding from the barista. So if you get a strange look when you ask for a caffè at 4 pm, that would be why.
Restaurants that serve lunch will be open 12:00-2:30; I would highly recommend finding a place with good ratings that has the word “Osteria” or “Trattoria” in the name instead of one with “Ristorante.” An osteria will generally be the most casual, while a ristorante will be the most formal of the three; a trattoria falls in a nice middle ground. Unless you are looking for a fancier place, the first two types are often family-owned and will have really good home-style or regional dishes that are often just to die for. Sometimes these are recipes that have been honed for generations and passed down through the family.
Between lunch and dinner, there can be a very long gap in time. For that reason, there is the lovely tradition of the aperitivo that anyone visiting Italy should absolutely participate in. They say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” after all! The aperitivo is the light snack and drink before dinner – it is a very Northern thing as I understand it, but it’s becoming more and more common down south. Here we often drink a glass of prosecco or prosecco-based cocktails, such as Spritz Aperol or L’Hugo, which we enjoy with little finger foods or chips. All just to whet our appetite and get us ready to enjoy dinner!
Restaurants don’t usually open for dinner before 7:00 or 7:30. Because Italians love to take time to savor their food and enjoy their time with friends and family, don’t expect everything to come to the table super quickly. Also, don’t feel like you have to rush to eat! That table you are sitting at is your table for as long as you want it even if it is the whole night! Servers don’t work on tips, so don’t feel like you have to stuff your face and vacate the table so another group can take your place. Sit back, relax, and enjoy your dinner at a leisurely pace. Afterwards, give a try to the post-desert digestivo if you want the full experience; my preference is an amaro. Tourists should also know that at a restaurant, generally the bill will not be brought until you ask for it or until you go up to the register and tell them your table number. To Italians it is rude to bring the bill before it is requested; it’s kind of like telling the table to hurry up and get out.
Susan with her husband in the mountains
Let’s say that a tourist wants to visit your area in Italy. Where would you take him or her?
A trip to my area would be incomplete without going to visit Venice naturally.
Besides the standard, I would take visitors to Valdobbiadene, the region where prosecco is made. The vineyard-covered hills are only about forty minutes away, and every Spring there is a festival called Primavera del Prosecco that lasts for a couple of months; it is rotated throughout the little towns in the area where major and local prosecco producers can display and have tastings of their products. My husband and I have really enjoyed getting to taste the wines right at the sources, especially as there are so many brands that cannot be easily found in the local stores.
Besides the wine country, other great places to visit are Castelfranco Veneto and Cittadella. Seeing castles is a novelty to American: we just don’t have that history in our relatively young country; we missed the castle-building era. To see a walled-city complete with a moat is even more incredible.
We can’t speak of Italy without speaking of food. What is the one food a foreigner must absolutely not miss when in Italy?
This is one of the things that I absolutely adore about my new home – can you tell?? Italy has an incredibly rich food culture, and there are certain dishes that simply must be eaten in the area of their origins. While in America we do have some regional dishes, in Italy this concept is even more pronounced, perhaps because Italian unification didn’t happen until just 150 years ago. I’m not sure. However, it has created this world where traveling through Italy is also an adventure for your taste buds.
In Rome, I would highly recommend trying the carbonara or cacio e pepe; in Florence, the ribollita, fiorentina, or lampredotto are must-haves (just don’t ask what the lampredotto is before you take a bite!)! In the Venice area, the baccalá with polenta or a dish of bigoli all’anatra is wonderful. Anyone travelling to Naples should obviously try the pizza, but also try the zeppole and especially the mozzarella di bufala. Anyone who tries the last one will thank me for it! You will never want American ‘mozzarella’ again.
loving the mountains
What was your experience with learning Italian? Was it difficult for you to learn it? Do you have tips for people studying Italian?
When I came to Italy I didn’t know more than grazie, prego, sì, and no. As I mentioned before, my language learning had a rough start due to my rural abode in Lecce. However, that all changed when I moved to live with my in-laws for a few months. We were in between houses while my husband’s job was moving him from Lecce to Treviso; our lease was up, but he had to be in Lecce for another few months. So I had to move all our stuff up north and live with his parents for about 3 months in the Vicenza area. Talk about growing pains!
We were barely married 7 months, and I barely spoke Italian, and his parents didn’t speak any English. Many of our early communications were via Google Translate – for better or worse. After a few weeks, I would find myself so exhausted mentally, trying to think in Italian day-in and day-out. Then there was a shift where I could more-or-less understand what was being said to me, but I lacked the vocabulary and understanding of verb conjugation to be able to respond well. It felt like there was a wall in my brain between the input and the output. Then suddenly one day, after studying the conjugations a bit and understanding the pattern, it all started to fall into place.
Every day through simple tasks of helping my mother-in-law around the house cooking, cleaning, and running errands, I started learning more and more vocabulary and began to be able to actually communicate; I felt myself growing in my confidence in Italian. So when people say full-immersion is the best way to learn a language, I can attest to that through my own experience. I went from very little understanding to having conversations in three months. Granted it was very broken Italian to be sure, but it was a milestone.
At this point, I would say I am pretty decent in a conversation. I just passed a new test the other day – dinner with some cousins-in-law who have stronger dialect accents, all by myself while my husband is away in Sardegna for work. My best friend and I have discussed that there are generally three basic kinds of conversations: conversations about people, conversations about things, and conversations about ideas. It feels like I’m just on the verge of being able to discuss ideas.
having fun in Venice
The biggest tip I could give is to have a good English vocabulary, and I was very fortunate to come from a family of wordsmiths and bookworms. In English, we have a lot of synonyms because our language is an amalgam primarily of French, German, and Latin. This is why our spelling is so odd, and it’s nearly impossible for grammatical rules to be true all the time (sorry, guys!). But if you have a good vocabulary, learning Italian will be much easier because of that Latin influence between our two languages. In English we talk about these “10-cent” words, meaning the words that were more complex or multi-syllabic; often we say we aren’t supposed to use them when a simpler word would do. However, those very words are often the words that are a cognate with the Italian word.A very basic example: in English, you could use the word “tool,” but it could also be called a “utensil.” In this case, utensil is the 10-cent word because the majority of people would just use the word tool. However, in Italian, the word is utensile. There is your cognate. In a different connotation, the word “tool” could also be called an “instrument.” The Italian word is strumento.
So if you have a good vocabulary and can train your mind to think in 10-cent words, you may be able to learn Italian much more quickly because it will be easier to memorize new words that are closer to your own. It also will make understanding Italian easier for you. There have been hundreds of times I have been talking with someone and they say a word that I previously didn’t know in Italian, but upon hearing it and its context I immediately understood because it was so similar to a word in English. For example, precoce (precocious) or ostentato (ostentatious). Because of this I can hear and understand way more Italian that I am able to speak.
Obviously, take care when guessing at new words – there are some false friends out there that can be rather embarrassing!
Thanks Susan for sharing your thoughts and experience!
If you are interested in more thoughts about Italy, I have a whole section of interviews with expats. I have chatted with a Canadian living in Bergamo, a Polish girl in love with Rome, an American artist who lives in Umbria, another American who moved to beautiful Tuscany, a Mancunian who now resides in Molise, a Scottish lady who is now happily living in Veneto, a British couple who lives and work in Garfagnana, Tuscany, a US lady who runs a hostel in Rome, an American lady who now lives a in beautiful Tuscan villa, a lovely couple who lives in Tuscany part-time, a writer from Seattle who has been living in Rome for 15 years now and a couple who has just gotten Italian citizenship.