It’s time to chat with an expat again and I am over the moon with joy!
I have been interviewing expats for a while now – you can find all interviews linked at the bottom of this post – but I never get tired of doing it. I love it because I am a very curious person and I want to know everything about other people’s lives but also because every interview, even if my questions are more or less similar, is an opportunity to learn more about my culture and reflect about it.
For example, this time it was really interesting for me to read what Tiffany has to say about Italian schools and public education, here in Italy. As she says, the workload is huge and sometimes this makes people hate school – that’s so true and I never realized that. I also like how she underlines, when speaking of healthcare, how lucky we Italians are – something we tend to take for granted way too many times.
Anyway, who of this Tiffany I am speaking with? She is an awesome author, travel writer and part-time travel guide. Moreover, she co-hosts the awesome podcast The Bittersweet Life, which I absolutely recommend you. In the podcast, she chats with Katy Sewall about various aspects of Italian life. It’s really interesting!
I am really happy she accepted to be interviewed here because, when I found her online and started following her work, I knew she would be perfect for this section of my blog. And I was right because she shares a lot of interesting thoughts and points of view. So thank you so much, Tiffany!
Hello Tiffany! 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! Thanks for inviting me to participate! I’m an author, podcast host, travel writer, and tour guide, and have lived and worked in Rome for nearly 15 years. But I took a very circuitous path to get here. I grew up in Seattle, and studied in Boston and then Montréal, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in classical music—my first love was opera.
I moved to Rome after graduating and spent several years working as a tour guide, which I still do part-time. I have worked as a travel writer and editor for the past ten years, while simultaneously writing fiction for young readers. My first book, Midnight in the Piazza, an art mystery set in Rome, was published in 2018.
I also co-host and co-produce The Bittersweet Life, a conversational podcast that explores travel, Italy, and the expat experience. I’m currently working on my next book, a Young Adult adventure that takes place in Caravaggio’s Rome. I am married to a Roman and have a three-year-old son.
When did you visit Italy for the first time? What was your first impression about the country and has that first impression changed over time?
My first time in Italy was a short trip to Florence with my mom and sister when I was 14. At the time I was obsessed with the film A Room with a View, and I literally cried when I first stood in Piazza della Signoria. My love of opera as an adolescent continued to feed my passion for all things Italian.
I returned to Italy, this time Rome, at 19 to meet some recently rediscovered Italian relatives, and I was hooked. I picked up Italian very quickly, and simply felt I was meant to be here, almost like I had lived here in a previous life. From that moment on, I knew I would move here one day, the only question was when.
Like all expats in Italy, I have my moments when I wring my hands over how things are done here, how inconvenient life can be, how difficult it is to get things done, how the system seems to conspire against you, but nevertheless, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Italy’s beauty, charm, and richness more than make up for her frustrating and maddening aspects.
Recording a podcast episode with Katy Sewall
You have been living here for a while now. Was it easy to get used to it? What were the biggest challenges you had to face?
Because I traveled to Italy so often before moving here, often staying long periods and living with Italian families, I felt I was able to get used to life here pretty quickly. But the biggest challenge I have had to face is probably how hard it is to get things done. The bureaucracy alone probably shaves years off a person’s life. I sometimes suspect they make things more complicated than they need to be on purpose. Convenience is not part of the culture.
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 actually am pretty adaptable. I don’t suffer much culture shock when I go back and forth between the States and Italy. However, there is one thing about Italy I will never get used to, and that is the lack of customer service (which is, admittedly, probably worse in Rome than in other parts of Italy).
As an American, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that I can be in someone’s place of business, spending money on their products, and they can nevertheless treat me rudely, or worse, ignore me altogether.
Love is in the air – in Rome, especially!
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?
Being an expat, in general, has taught me to be comfortable being different from the people around me. It has also given me the ability and readiness to face challenges in my everyday life, things that would be easy and straightforward for a local, but that an expat or immigrant has a harder time with.
There’s also a certain amount of humility that comes with being an expat; you’re always just a little out of the loop, and you have to learn to be ok with that.
Life in Italy, in particular, has taught me to be less of a people-pleaser. Americans tend to think everyone should like them. Italians don’t have time for that—they are too busy being themselves.
One of my favorite episodes of The Bittersweet Life, the podcast you host with Katy Sewall, was the one where you featured your in-laws, who are just the typical Italian couple. What differences do you see in Italian families compared to the American ones?
That was such a fun episode! One of the main differences, at least with couples of the older generation, is that Italian husbands do not share the housework duties like American ones do! In general, the male and female roles are more distinct here, whereas Americans do feel so defined by them. Luckily, the younger Italians are slowly changing this dynamic.
Tiffany playing with her son
You have a little kid. Is growing a kid here different than doing it in the States? Positive and negative sides?
For me, one of the biggest positives of raising my son in Rome is that there is so much art, history, beauty, and culture, everywhere you look. I try to take him to a museum, church, or archeological site at least once a month. At only three, he is already fascinated by the things he discovers. Even a walk in the neighborhood piazza provides a wealth of history and art.
Another great aspect of having a child in Italy is the array of practical things the country provides, like paid maternity leave, parental leave, affordable or even free daycare. Giving birth is free! Italians might take these things for granted, but in America, they simply don’t exist.
There aren’t very many negatives to raising a child in Italy, other than the Italian public schools (from middle school on). They are rigorous to the extreme. In my opinion, the workload is excessive, and the kids end up hating to study and resenting school. They also have no time to play, socialize, or do activities because they spend hours and hours studying every single day. I don’t think that promotes healthy learning.
Lots of people dream of moving to Italy and sometimes they have a stereotyped image of the country. What are your recommendations for people dreaming of living in Italy?
We just did an episode about this on the podcast! I’m the first to admit that it was a stereotyped image of Italy that attracted me too. I think stereotypes about places exist for a reason—there’s always some truth to them.
But you have to know that no matter where you live, eventually life will go on and you’ll have to deal with the same kinds of things you deal with at home: work, commuting, taxes, bureaucracy, housing, parking, and so on. Sometimes (usually) those things will be even harder to deal with than they were in your home country. You have to decide if what you love about Italy, and life in Italy, is enough to make all those frustrating, annoying things worth it.
I would suggest spending a good chunk of time here, maybe six months or a year, before making any permanent decisions. Take a sabbatical if you can, rent out your place, put your stuff in storage if necessary, and come see if you like living here, not just visiting. Spend time doing things you’ll have to do in “real life” and see if you can imagine yourself living here long term, even after the rose-colored glasses inevitably come off.
Tiffany with her first novel, Midnight in the Piazza
You have recently published Midnight in the Piazza, a book for children set in Rome. How has the city – or Italy in general – inspired this novel?
To be honest, Rome inspires everything I write. The city is my muse. I’m pretty sure I’ve never had an idea for a book or story that wasn’t inspired by this city in some way. I don’t even know if I would have become a writer if I hadn’t moved to Rome. Midnight in the Piazza, in particular, was inspired by the Turtle Fountain in Piazza Mattei, and the legend that it was built in a single night. My next book is inspired by Caravaggio’s art and paradoxical personality.
Let’s speak of tourism now. You give private tours in Rome: what is the place you like the most in the city and what is its most beautiful secret place, a place that no tourists know?
My favorite place to take clients is the Capitoline Museums. It’s an incredible living testament to the city’s entire 3000-year history and has some of the most precious works of ancient art in the city. I also give a Caravaggio tour, and I love taking my fellow Caravaggio-lovers on a walk through Rome in his footsteps.
Rome has many “secret” places, simply because it has such an astounding amount of art, and by consequence, no tourist could possibly see it all. I could never pick an absolute favorite, but my top five are probably Villa Farnesina, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, the Mausoleum of Costanza, Galleria Sciarra, and the hidden medieval frescoes in Santa Cecilia.
I can’t end this interview without asking you about food. Food in Rome is particularly awesome, in my opinion. Is there a place (restaurant or similar) or a dish you’d absolutely recommend to people visiting the city?
I will be totally honest and say that, unlike most expats in Rome, I am not a foodie. I like good food of course, but it’s not a particular passion of mine. (I know, I’m weird!) But my favorite restaurant for a simple traditional meal is Da Gildo in Trastevere. My husband and I have been going there for a decade, and I always order the same thing: Gnocchi alla Romana, so simple and so good. For more important occasions, I love Taverna Trilussa, also in Trastevere. The Ravioli Mimosa is incredible, and they serve it to you right in the pan!
What about your Italian? What was your experience learning it? Do you have tips for other people studying the language?
I was very fortunate that Italian came easily to me. (I still contend I was Italian in a former life so perhaps that’s why!) I studied the language for just one year in university, but the following summer I went to Italy and spent time with my Italian relatives, speaking only Italian. A few years later I came back and had an Italian boyfriend who didn’t speak English. That helped a lot.
There’s really only one way to learn a new language: you must throw yourself in. And the absolute best (and most enjoyable) way is to get yourself an Italian boyfriend or girlfriend—just make sure he or she doesn’t speak English. You’ll be fluent in no time.
Thank you so much, Tiffany, for taking the time to share your thoughts 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 and a lovely couple who lives in Tuscany part-time.