Today I am super happy because I do not get to interview just one expat but two at the same time!
In this post, I chat with Chris and Eva, a British couple who lives and works in Italy. They lived in the Cotswolds but years ago they decided to change their life, relocating to Tuscany – in La Lunigiana, precisely. They have been living there for 13 years now and have started an online business which clearly shows their love for Italy.
As it always happens with the expats I feature here, I have “met” them on Instagram: Chris commented on one of my Italian idioms posts a while ago and we started chatting. When I learnt that Chris and Eva had been living in Italy for 13 years, I asked Chris if I could interview them and he luckily said yes!
I am really happy because it is the first time I get to chat with a couple and it is a great opportunity to see a different point of view on the same experience. As it happens every time, this interview is filled with food for thought, opportunities for a good laugh and lots of useful tips.
As a local, for example, I completely agree with Eva when she underlines that a good relationship with neighbors is vital, here in Italy. When something happens, especially if you live in a very small village, neighbors are always the first people you ask for help. A few days ago, when I thanked a neighbor for helping my mom with some stuff, she told me that neighbors are more important than relatives – and I can see the wisdom is such sentence.
Moreover, I truly appreciated what Chris wrote me in an email, asking me to specify that they do not consider themselves as expats but immigrants, because – as Chris said – “we certainly came to Italy to better our lives“.
Well, it’s enough of me chatting about them, let’s see what they have to say about life in this crazy country called Italy!
Hello Chris and Eva! Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. First of all, would you like to introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about your life and work?
Chris: Hi Cinzia, ciao tutti! My name is Chris (Cri – to the locals in our village) I’m English and have been living full time in Northern Tuscany (in the cheap seats of La Lunigiana, not Chiantishire!) since 2005. In the UK I masqueraded as a “nice man from Head Office” for one of the big 4 retail banks before setting up an art business with Eva. To make ends meet in Italy I have done all sorts of stuff over the years, and recently have started Shabby Sheep Design (again with Eva) selling online our own designer Italian themed t-shirts.
Eva: I am an artist living in Northern Tuscany. Before I came to Italy I worked in advertising and subsequently ran an art gallery together with Chris in the Costwolds. I am a tree hugger, dog lover and inbetween going out into the forest I create designs for our small cottage industry of selling Italian themed t-shirts.
When was your first time in Italy? What was your first impression of the country?
Chris: Eva booked us a holiday to Tuscany in the early ‘90s. In addition to seeing the usual jaw-dropping suspects of Florence and Siena etc we ambled up into the Gulf of Poets on the Ligurian Riviera. I remember being blown away by just about everything – scenery, architecture, food, people. It was nothing like North London which was where we were living at the time!!
Eva: We came for a holiday some twenty-five years ago. I remember everyone looking really smart and cool.
You left everything behind and moved to Italy. Tell us more about this crazy decision! 😀
Chris: Not really crazy as it might seem, but certainly based on emotion and gut feel rather than logic. We have no children and so were able to think more freely. We did start by thinking of buying a small holiday home, but once we’d seen the possibility of living a different life, we just jumped at it.
Eva: I think you should always make big decisions when you are on the ‘up’. If you make big decisions when you are on the ‘down’ all you do is take your problems with you. We were happy with our lives in the Cotswolds but just wanted a bigger life adventure.
Was it easy to settle in Italy? What were the biggest challenges you encountered?
Chris: Surviving a fair sized renovation project was a huge stress at the time. That gave us an immediate illustration of the extent to which our cultures differ. Even if we thought beforehand what some of those difference were, we were not prepared for dealing with them when they impacted at a personal everyday level with pressures of time and money etc. I still loathe to this day the big utility companies especially Telecom Italia and as for Poste Italia!! Let’s just say we didn’t move to Italy based on our love of its efficiency and its streamlined approach to cutting through bureaucracy. If I encounter a jobsworth then my inner dogs of hell are released.
Eva: That is a question that when you ask most expats they pull funny grimacing faces. The mind-blowing, illogical and time-consuming bureaucracy alone is enough to make you pull those faces. Also driving on the autostrada is a frequent challenge!
You have been living in Italy since 2005, so you have quite an experience now. Is there something you’d like to recommend to people who want to relocate or are just dreaming about it?
Chris: I’d say if you feel positive about it in your gut then do it. If you feel pulled towards something here, then you’ll love that even more when you are here. But don’t try it if you are running away from something because the chances are that “thing” will be even more exacerbated in a complex and different culture. Oh, and remember that exchange rate risks are real and can hurt when they swing against you. Add 50% to any figure you have in your mind.
Eva: Don’t live down an isolated country track (so many people think this is the dream), in Italy the best way to survive and enjoy is to have good contact with your neighbours and local people generally.
British culture is quite different from the Italian one. What is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Do you think there is something you’ll never get used to?
Chris: I will never get used to grown men re-adjusting their private parts in public whenever they feel nervous!! And on the positive side the unconditional generosity of neighbours (and strangers on occasions) is always astounding.
Eva: The slight bending of the truth to regain a ‘bella figura’ (a good impression).
On the other hand, what are the positive lessons you learned after experiencing life in Italy? Do you feel that Italy has somehow changed something in the way you live or approach life? What makes you feel a bit “Italian” when you go abroad now?
Chris: I’ve changed for the better for sure. More relaxed generally, oddly when driving too. Meal times matter more than ever before. Proper food 3 times a day (I know breakfast is not a big thing here). Not drinking a pint of milky, rubbish coffee but swigging back instead in an instant a caffè or a caffè macchiato, then “via“, on my way. I still struggle to do small talk though.
Eva: You don’t have to drink to behave lively and be gregarious. Some of my best nights out in Italy have been pretty sober ones. I also take greater care over my clothes than I used to and I have a much smarter ‘casual’ wardrobe than I have ever had before.
You live in Lunigiana, which is an off-the-beaten-track yet amazing area between Liguria and Tuscany. Do you have recommendations for people who want to travel in the area and explore something different from the usual Florence and Siena and Cinque Terre?
Chris: Yes, by avoiding all those long haul tourist magnets you can get away from hearing English, American, Japanese etc etc at every street corner and start to appreciate a slower rural way of life. You can always jump back in for a bit of culture at any time by zipping up to Parma or Genova.
Eva: Drive your car and enjoy the countryside, eat pranzo di lavoro, talk to the crowd in the small piazze, go to the local sagre (summer organised oudoor barbecue style events). You can see beautiful architecture in many of the smaller towns. Adopt a dog…
Speaking of visiting Italy in general, can you name three things people must do in order to experience Italy at its best?
Chris: 1. Keep your smartphone in your pocket 2. Never eat at any place that has national flags and pictures on the menu 3. Order things you have never heard of.
Eva: 1. Take a phrase book, people will love your accent. 2. Make sure you have the latest designer sunglasses! (It’ll make you feel good) 3. Go into at least one designer shop as if you were going to buy something.
Obviously, we can’t talk about Italy without mentioning food. What is your favorite Italian dish and why? What is the one food or dish foreigners absolutely have to try, when they come to Italy?
Chris: So many favourites but one dish I love is polpo e patate – served warm, soft octopus with boiled potato. Locally I love the torte di erbe which are like a thin pastie/pie made with local greens and leaves often gathered from the fields by hand.
Eva: My favourite is probably the mixed salumi dishes (cold meats) which come with the antipasti (prosciutto crudo and cotto, salami, lardo, mortadella, coppa, speck, testa in cassetta). I love the way they are so thinly cut they almost melt in your mouth. All visitors should be made to eat the latest craziest flavour ice cream in a real gelateria (currently a trifle cake in mine).
Lastly, the dreaded Italian language! Can you tell us a bit about your experience with it?
Chris: Even after all these years I’m only at an intermediate level largely because in our village we don’t have many people to chat with and my approach to learning is based around the 80/20 rule. In other words, I have concentrated on the 20% of verbs/grammar which I believe provide me with 80% of what I’ll need to get me by. But I have no desire to be fluent, I just want to be able to be myself and express myself and to know what’s what. As for tips, I’d say find what works for you, but don’t think that waving your arms, pointing and adding “io” to the end of every other word will get you very far.
Eva: Sigh! Impossible to remember all the ‘exceptions’ to every rule. But generally, people don’t seem to mind if you get things wrong. Communication is a lot about body language, tone of voice, facial expression so I have learnt (after many years) just to free myself up and go with the flow. I strongly suggest you learn to conjugate the verb fare (to do), it seems to come in very useful!
Thank you so much guys for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us. Grazie mille!
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 and a Scottish lady who is now happily living in Veneto.