How is living in Italy? Is it really so fascinating as people think? It’s time to ask an expat again!
My dear Expats in Italy section is back and I couldn’t be happier because I really love this kind of posts. If you have been following me for a while, you know that I chat with expats living in Italy every now and then because I really want to know their opinion about life in Italy and Italian culture in general. For me, as a native, it is a great opportunity to look at Italy with different eyes and I hope that for you guys is a way to read about the opinions of people who live here without being Italians – and manage to survive!
This time, I have the pleasure of virtually speaking with Rebecca, a young lady from Scotland who now lives and works in Veneto. She is a part-time English teacher, travel writer, and blogger at La Brutta Figura, a blog that I really recommend because it is a great way of learning more about lesser-known Italian locations. Along with the usual Florence and Rome and Venice tips, she goes out and explores little towns and off-the-beaten-track itineraries, giving her readers the opportunity of diving deeper into Italian culture.
As it happens every time, this interview gave me the chance of reflecting on the Italian way of life and laughing about it as well, I loved when Rebecca pointed out the lack of certain ingredients in Italian supermarkets: that’s so true! We are so focused on our own food that we don’t care about the rest of the world. And I appreciated the fact that she underlined how different Italy can be from region to region. By the way, here’s an example: she says that everybody in Italy speaks dialect. Well, this is true for Veneto, where she lives, but here in Liguria only very few people do so! You see, you can’t really generalize when it comes to Italy and you learn it only after living here for a while.
But let’s now read what she has to say about her experience in Italy. Thanks Rebecca!
Hello Rebecca! 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?
Hello! I’m originally from Scotland, but I moved to Italy 4 years ago. I live in a small town in the Veneto and I began by working as an English teacher. Now, while I still teach part-time, I’m trying to dedicate more and more time to travel writing, to my blog, and to sharing my life in Italy with others. Almost every weekend I try to explore another corner of Italy, be it just a restaurant or a whole new region.
Why did you decide to move to Italy? And why did you choose Veneto?
I decided to move to Italy just because I really wanted to try living here. I had studied Italian and History of Art at university, and I thought it was time to try out la dolce vita in person! The Veneto came up as a result of searching for a teaching post. The town advertised was small, but so conveniently located for all the best art cities – Venice, Bologna, Ferrara, Vicenza, so I went for it!
When did you visit Italy for the first time? What was your first impression about the country?
My parents also have a bit of the Italy bug, so we often travelled to Italy for family holidays. I think the first was Venice, in winter, when I was about 10. I loved the dark alleys and the damp smell of Venice (I was quite the romantic then) and I remember debating for hours over which mask to buy as a souvenir. I also remember taking a water taxi to the airport at sunrise, through a silent city. Even at that point I loved the Italians, particularly the old men in their matching terracotta coloured trousers. My impression then of Italy was of elegance and refinement, so many gothic palaces, ladies in head-to-toe black and the Grand Canal glittering at night.
You have been living in Italy for a while now. Has that first impression about Italy changed over time?
My impression of Italy has changed my times since moving here, and probably will continue to do so. If you’d asked me that question last year I’d have given a tirade of abuse about the disgraceful transport/bureaucracy/healthcare etc! Now, I’m beginning to accept all that as unchangeable so it doesn’t bother me so much. The more places I see in Italy the more I understand the importance of ‘regionality’ not nationality. Now I see Italy as a place of fascinating differences, that can’t be summed up as ‘pizza’, or ‘Rome’, or even ‘mediterranean’.
Was it easy to get used to living here? What were the biggest challenges you had to face?
It was easy in some ways and really difficult in others! Easy because the lifestyle comes naturally to me, from aperitivo to breakfast in the bar, to taking time to do activities like making home-made pasta which I would have considered a waste of time back home! In terms of the challenges, I won’t talk about bureaucracy again or I’ll sound like a broken record… But can Italy please address the lack of baking ingredients in supermarkets?! Self-raising flour, vanilla essence, bicarbonate of soda, they’re so difficult to find! Dry Italian crostate and biscuits just don’t cut it for me, I need fluffy Victoria sponges and squidgy lemon cakes.
Regarding Italian culture in general, what is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Is there something you still cannot get used to and probably never will?
Strangely enough, it has taken a long time to get used to the people, the Italians. The stereotype of the unconditionally friendly, ready-to-break-out-into-song-any-moment Italian is just that, a stereotype. Italians are lovely, no doubt about that, but I’ve had to get used to hearing casual racism in jokes, A LOT of staring, old men judging me for being a woman and drinking alcohol, being called ‘foreign’ with that hostile tone to the voice and many other very old-fashioned behavioural quirks. While people in the big cities like Milan and Florence may have updated their ideas to the 21st century, small town and rural Italy is a little stuck in the past, which can be good and bad!
When you live in a place for a long time, that place somehow changes the way you are. Do you feel that living in Italy has changed you? If so, in what ways?
Definitely! And mainly in good ways – I’m more outgoing, I cook better food, I have a better diet, I enjoy so many little things of everyday life. Italians really know how to enjoy enjoy daily life and I’m trying to learn from them! Also, one very specific thing that I’ve started doing – in Britain we have a very much ‘split the bill’ mentality, and people really take note of what they owe each other. Here in Italy, instead, everyone pays for each other without keeping track because they know at some point someone else will pay for them. It’s a much more relaxed and generous attitude to money. I love that there’s always this little battle at the till for who can give their money to the cashier first, and I’m proud to say I’m getting pretty good at being the first one!
Living far away from your home country must be hard. What do you miss the most about Scotland (apart from friends and family, of course)? And what is the one thing about Italy you miss the most when you’re abroad?
Living so near the sea in Edinburgh, I often miss that chilly sea air and walks along the beach. Beaches in Scotland are so rural and wild, I really don’t like the regimented rows of sun loungers here in Italy. I also miss the landscape of Scotland in general, here in the Polesine it’s all completely, infinitely flat! Since moving to Italy I haven’t been abroad for more than a week at a time, so I haven’t really missed it, but if I went away for longer I think I’d miss aperitivo time! I love that hour after work when you relax in your favourite bar with lots of people you know and whet your appetite for a big Italian dinner!
Let’s speak of tourism. What would you recommend to people visiting Italy for the first time, so that they can have the best – and most real – Italian experience possible?
That’s a very difficult question to answer! For me, the ‘real’ Italy can be found by going to small towns and villages and seeing local festivals and celebrations. I love seeing the different ways communities celebrate saints’ days, from jumping over bonfires to making pastries. These festivities are not performed for tourism so you can really experience the Italian spirit. But for a first timer to Italy I wouldn’t say avoid the big cities like Rome and Florence, these are essential places to visit to understand the history of Italian culture! Perhaps just reserve a day or two for getting out of the city and seeing some local culture.
You live in a Veneto, an amazingly beautiful yet little known Italian region – Venice excluded, obviously . Let’s say that a foreign tourist would like to visit it: where would you suggest him or her to go?
My first suggestion would always be the Colli Euganei, an area of hills near Padova. It’s my escape at the weekends, we take the Vespa and zip around stopping at vineyards and agriturismi. The Colli Euganei are a mini gastronomic paradise, a little reminiscent of Tuscany. They make great wine, which you can taste while on a terrace looking over the landscape. There is also a beautiful village called Arquà Petrarca where you can visit the house of the famous poet Petrarch.
Can you tell us a bit about the language? Was it difficult to learn it? Do you have tips for people who are learning Italian?
I love learning and speaking Italian, but if you come to live in Italy you’ll find one of your biggest problems is that half the time Italians don’t actually speak Italian, they speak dialect! Dialects can differ in towns 10km apart, so imagine the difference between Venetian dialect and Neapolitan. It’s worth investigating dialect, though, because they have wonderfully creative expressions that derive from historical or cultural circumstance.
For example, I learnt that in Venetian dialect there is an expression ‘I’ll show you the time’, which is a threat. It derives from centuries ago when prisoners in Venice were hanged or beheaded between two columns in St Mark’s Square. The prisoner would be facing the famous clock tower when they met their end, so telling someone you’ll show them the time means you want to kill them!
As a tip for learning, I think one of the easiest ways is to find something you are passionate about and start there. Italian has already infiltrated into the English language in food, art, even fashion, so if you pick a theme you might find you know a lot already!
Thank you so much, Rebecca, for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us!
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 Tuscanyand a Mancunian who now resides in Molise.