Today I am really happy because I get to chat with an expat again.
I have been doing these kinds of interviews for a few years now and I have spoken with a good number of people but it is always really interesting to read what people have to say about their life in Italy and their experience here.
Today I have the pleasure of chatting with Lisa-Marie Proteau, a lovely girl from Canada whom I met on Instagram. She has a very nice profile there, where she shares her daily life in Florence with the cutest little dog. She also has a really interesting blog, called Almost Fiorentina, where she writes about her life in Italy in a very open and sincere way.
And that’s the same approach she has in this interview, where she talks very openly about her private life and some very hard things she had to go through. I really admire her for being so honest and sincere and I am really moved by the fact that life in Florence has helped her a great deal. And her love for Florence makes me cry a little too!
The interview is also packed with suggestions about moving to Italy or simply visiting it and the usual fun facts about life in Italy – yes, I find bank opening times super weird too, Lisa!
But it’s time I let her speak!
Hello Lisa-Marie! 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?
Ciao Cinzia, thank you so much for having me! I’m a proud Canadian, born and raised in Montreal, Canada. My Dad is Québecois and my Mom was also born in Québec, but her parents immigrated to Canada from Molise when they were teenagers so let’s just say I have a little bit of Southern Italian blood in me. I’ve worked in International Education for the past two years in Florence, I currently work full-time as an editor at a fashion school and I write my Almost Fiorentina blog for fun!
How long have you been living in Italy now? Can you tell us a bit about the process of moving here? Was it easy?
I moved to Italy for the first time in 2009 as a study abroad student in Florence. I loved it so much that I decided to stay until 2013 and eventually said goodbye to Italy after graduation to begin my “real adult life” in Canada. I headed to the West Coast and started working in Vancouver. Everything was okay, but something was missing and I didn’t know how to fix it.
My life seemed perfect on paper. I had a job, a condo I had just purchased and renovated, and I had a great partner I had just moved in with. We would go hiking and walk on the beach with my dog Kiwi on weekends. It was a beautiful life, but it wasn’t mine to live.
In 2016, there was the tiniest voice inside my head telling me to go back to Florence. At that point, I had been away for three years, so it seemed like a lighthearted idea to visit my friends and the city I loved. I booked a solo trip to celebrate my 26th birthday, and it ended up being the catalyst to my moving here forever. After two weeks in Florence, I didn’t want to get on my flight back home to Vancouver and within three days of being back in Canada, I had called a real estate agent and put my home for sale, broke up with a person I really cared about and moved back in with my Dad in Montreal to plan my official move to Florence.
Sometimes, you really do have to break your own heart to make room for what really makes you happy. It was perhaps the most irresponsible decision I could’ve possibly made at the time, but the feeling I had in my gut meant I was doing the right thing. I knew it would be hard to start all over again, but I didn’t mind.
When did you visit Italy for the first time? What was your first impression about the country and has that first impression about Italy changed over time?
Technically, my first time in Italy was when I was 2 years old! My parents brought me on a family vacation to Morrone Del Sannio, the tiny town my grandparents were from! We went to Pompeii, Campobasso and Termoli. They brought me to the beach and I ate gelato all day. I don’t remember it, but I have most of the trip on tape. It’s funny how something that might’ve seemed so small at the time probably impacted my love for Italy. I ended up going back a few times as a teenager before studying abroad in 2009.
And to be honest, it was punch-drunk love or a lot like it. I fell truly, madly, and deeply in love with Italy when I moved here. I wanted it so bad, it made my head spin. And when you love something or someone that much, you take the good with the bad. I chose to accept Italy’s bad and focus on all of the good. Let me just say, spending summers at the beach and eating gelato all day is something I still very much appreciate and that will never change.
Was it difficult to get used to life in Italy? What were the biggest challenges you had to face?
This is a difficult question for me to answer because when I moved to Italy for the first time, I was completely broken. I think it’s important to share your past so people can better understand who you are. When I booked my flight to study abroad in Florence for the first time in 2009, my Mom and my brother were both sick. They both had cancer and they were both going through chemotherapy.
I was 19 and I wasn’t ready to deal with what was happening. So I left. And it’s something I’ve written about before because it haunts me to this day. If only I was older. If only I was wiser. If only I knew back then what I know now. But it was one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned and it taught me so much. So for me, the biggest challenge in Italy was just getting up in the morning and being a normal human being. Going to school every day was a huge accomplishment for me back then.
After one semester in Florence, I had to go back to Montreal because my Mom wasn’t getting better. I spent a month with her before she passed away. And I thought life would give me a break, because if your Mom passes away when you’re a teenager, it didn’t seem fair for things to get worse. It only made sense that my brother Antony would fight his cancer and go back to University in New York. But sometimes, the worst-case scenario happens. And my brother ended up passing away three months after my Mom, less than a month after his 23rd birthday. And instead of going to therapy and dealing with the trauma of losing the people I loved most in the entire universe, I got a dog, packed my suitcase and moved back to Florence for the second time in 2010.
To be honest, getting used to life here was really easy for me. Yes, learning the language was incredibly frustrating, but nobody knew or cared about what had happened to me and that’s what I needed more than anything. Florentines would yell at me to get off the road, and I had to fight my way to the front of the bar for an espresso every morning. It made me feel incredibly normal and alive. I loved it, I loved all of it.
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?
I think the amount of time it takes to get anything done can be very aggravating for someone who grew up in North America. Sometimes, it feels like they make paperwork impossible on purpose. You have to choose to laugh about it or you will cry.
I will never get used to the bank! Why are the opening hours of a bank so strange, why! Mine is opened from 8:20 to 12:45 and then from 14:40 to 16:45 I think, or something ridiculous like that. So I always have to wake up in the very early morning and rush to the bank at 8:20 because I have a full-time job and bank hours are impossible when you work a 9 to 5! One time, I waited inside the bank for an hour to ask a simple question and the teller wasn’t paying attention to me, so I went outside, called him, and asked him my question on the phone. He answered right away! Sometimes, you need to be creative to get what you need!
You have a cute little dog. Have you noticed something different from Canada when it comes to “dog culture” here in Italy?
My dog is treated like a tiny queen in Italy. In Canada, dogs have beautiful and designated dog parks where they can run and play, but you can’t bring them into a grocery store or to the dentist! Since moving to Florence, Kiwi has been to the grocery store, the gym, the dentist, the doctor, dozens of restaurants, the beach, the dermatologist, the bus, the club, an aerobics class, and anywhere else you can think of. Naturally, I keep her in a dog carrier in almost all of these places. Florence is a very dog-friendly city, Kiwi is allowed basically everywhere and I am eternally grateful.
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?
I feel like I owe my life to Florence. I don’t know if I would be okay today if it wasn’t for this city. She opened her arms and welcomed me when I was a shell of a human. She was warm and she let me in. She insisted on showing me why being broken is actually quite beautiful. I absolutely wouldn’t be where and who I am today without this city. I am forever indebted to her and cannot imagine living anywhere else.
And it’s funny because sometimes, I hear people say “Oh I didn’t like Florence, it was too touristy” and I feel personally attacked and offended because to me, that means you didn’t take the time to get to know her. You just saw what people told you to see and then you left. Florence is deep man, she’s got layers, and you need to give her time to show them to you!
I think my general routine has very much adapted to Italian culture. I have cookies and coffee in the morning, I eat dinner very late at night, I cannot imagine a world without aperitivo, I walk everywhere and when someone is trying to take advantage of me, you better believe I learned to speak up!
Living far away from your home country must be hard. What do you miss the most about Canada (apart from friends and family, of course)? And what is the one thing about Italy you miss the most when you’re abroad?
The general lack of space and grass is something I miss a lot about Canada. There are nice parks here too, but they certainly don’t look like a silent hike on a turquoise lake in the middle of the British Columbian forest! I also miss being a native speaker and being invisible. Being the foreigner is an ever-humbling experience. And I miss being paid a decent wage. Money is often a struggle in Italy. I have a good job and that makes me lucky here, but I’m not paid nearly enough to live a life where I don’t have to worry about money. I always have to pay attention to how much I’m spending.
I miss everything when I’m away from Italy! I miss my regular bar guys who know my name and my coffee order, I miss my favorite grocery store, I miss Bonomelli tea, I miss the simplicity of Italian food, I miss the way the city smells and most of all, I miss cotton candy Florentine sunsets. I still think Florence is the most beautiful city I have ever seen, and I never get tired of her.
Lots of people dream of moving to Italy and sometimes they have a stereotyped image of the country. What are your recommendations to people dreaming of living in Italy?
I think it’s important to be honest about how difficult it is to move here. It took me a year and a half to get my citizenship through my maternal grandfather. There were endless documents and just when I thought it was over, I would receive an email asking for more documents I had never even heard of! I think I cried in 6 different offices. If it wasn’t for my citizenship, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get a job or make a life for myself here as a Canadian. There would’ve been too much red tape. I know I’m really lucky to be in the position that I am in.
I also think Italy is still a little bit too conservative when it comes to LGBTQ+ acceptance. Civil unions were only granted in 2016 and even though we’re on the right track, I think there’s still a lot of space for improvement. Being part of the community, I’m sometimes disheartened by Italy’s incredibly restrictive laws when it comes to surrogacy, assisted conception and same-sex adoption. It’s something to seriously consider if you’re not in a heteronormative relationship and want to have a family here.
Let’s speak of tourism now. You live in beautiful Florence: can you suggest some off-the-beaten track locations for people who want to experience Florence as it truly is? Is there still something “secret” in the city?
Yes! Settignano is a beautiful town to visit if you want to escape the busy streets of Florence for a day. It’s a bus ride away from the city center, but the simplicity and views are breathtaking. I am also obsessed with the very Italian towns surrounding the city center: Pozzolatico, Impruneta, Galluzzo, Strada in Chianti…They’re so Italian and you can always find a dimly lit trattoria with delicious food and red wine to warm your soul. If you want to see beautiful villas and pretend you live in one, drive through Pian dei Giullari!
Speaking of Italy in general, what are the three things people visiting the country should do to experience Italy at is best?
I think living like a local is really important when you visit a new country. Even if you love toast and eggs in the morning, when in Italy, you must make an effort and have a juicy cornetto with a macchiato standing at the bar. Just remember to pay at the cash first and order second!
If you drink wine, it is imperative that you visit a few vineyards. Tasting wine under the Tuscan sun will change you. Find a delicious vineyard with a B&B and stay overnight.
And if you visit in the Summer, go the beach! Make Italian friends and eat potato pizza under the sun. Walk to the tiny beach bar in your bathing suit and have a gelato biscotto. Take a nap in the afternoon and head back to the beach for beers at sunset. It’s the little things that turn into a perfect Italian Summer.
Do you speak Italian? If so, how did you learn it? Was it easy? I’d love if you could share some tips and recommendations for people learning the language.
I do! I grew up with grandparents who spoke to me in Southern Italian dialect. I never spoke any Italian growing up, but I understood a dialect of a small town in Molise so I’m sure it helped a little! I am often told I have a bit of a Tuscan accent and I’m a little embarrassed by it, but it took me a lot of mistakes and red wine to get to where I am.
I barely learned Italian during my first year in Italy because I only had English-speaking friends. But once I made Italian friends, it all happened very quickly. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll still forget a “congiuntivo” here and there and use a “la” when I was supposed to use an “il,” but I feel fluent. I also think it’s really important to force your friends to correct you when you make mistakes!
Thank you so much, Lisa-Marie, for sharing your experience 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 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, a couple who has just gotten Italian citizenship, a lovely Texan who moved to a tiny little Italian village, a super energetic travel expert from the US now living in Rome, two young YouTubers who live in Prato, Tuscany, a Texan lady who lives in Turin, Slovak girl who now calls Bologna home and a Mississippi lady who is now Neapolitan.