I am super happy to be chatting again about expat life in Italy!
As you know, I am Italian and I have been living here most of my life, which means that the things I write on this blog are always from a very Italian point of view. So I really love chatting with expats because they see Italian life from a different perspective and this is a great chance to reflect on the Italian way of life.
This is why, when Greg contacted me via email for an information and told me a bit about his life, I immediately knew he was perfect for this section of the blog! Greg is from Manchester but has been living in Italy for a while now. He lives and works in Matera, which is in Basilicata, an amazing region in the south of Italy and quite an off-the-beaten-track tourist destination.
The fact that he lives in Matera was one of the things that immediately caught my interest – something different from the usual Florence, Tuscany, and Rome destinations, if you see what I mean. The other thing was the Agriturismo L’Assiolo where he works with his girlfriend and her family, which seems a truly amazing location!
I did some research about the place and I immediately fell in love with it. First of all, it is outside the usual Italian standard tourist route and offers a genuine approach to real Italian life. The other thing I really liked is La Lucana, a program which offers a lot of unique experiences like cooking lessons and culture tours of Matera and its surroundings, which are a great opportunity of diving deeper into Italian culture. If you are interested, I’d suggest you watch this video: it makes you want to pack your bags and leave, right? That’s what I felt when I watched it!
Well, it’s now time to let Greg speak and see what he has to say about life in this crazy country. Thanks Greg!
Greg and his lovely girlfriend Silvia
Hello Greg! 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! I’m Greg and I’m 35 years old. Before living in Italy, I lived in Manchester in England where I worked for a range of education and theatre companies. My expertise lies in teaching, digital technologies, game design, and theatre. In fact, it was my Ph.D. research into urban games that first led me to Matera. These days, I teach English, collaborate with other game designers across Europe on urban games projects and am learning more and more about my new venture in tourism.
When was your first time in Italy? What was your first impression of Italy and how has your opinion of the country changed while living here?
Interestingly, after my first ever visit to Italy, I wasn’t that impressed. I’d gone to Lake Garda as a classic British tourist and honestly, at that time, I found Italy to be way over hyped. It was full of tourists, the people were not overly friendly, the food wasn’t anything to write home about and everything felt very expensive. Yes, I made many of the classic tourist mistakes, such as arguing with a waiter when he brought out my pepperoni pizza without any salami (how embarrassed I feel now when I think about that) or it or not having a clue at all which wines to try or buy. At that time I left Italy thinking to myself, ‘I really don’t get what all the fuss is about with this country’. It’s crazy to say it now but at that time I genuinely felt that I’d never feel the need to return. Italy just made me go ‘meh!’
Fast forward 6 or 7 years and I found myself in the south, some small unheard of a place called Matera that no one I knew had ever heard of. I was taking part in a week-long crazy urban game called ‘Basilicata Border Games’. It was during that when the penny (or cent) dropped and I had completely fallen in love with Italy. So much so that as soon as I returned to Manchester, I ordered huge printed canvases of photos I had taken, which I then adorned the walls with in my house in Manchester. Every morning for about 7 months I woke up to an image of the Sassi di Matera, desperate to find a way to get back there and relive it all.
After my initial visit, during the ‘BB Games’, I went back to England to finally end a 7 and a half year relationship that I had been far too scared to leave for far too long. It was a difficult period for me before my second visit to Matera. I was lost, confused and above everything missing Italy and Matera like crazy! One particularly miserable afternoon, I found myself sitting on the floor of my kitchen and looking up at another picture of the Sassi (yes I even had pictures in the kitchen too!). I felt like those stones were calling me and something compelled me to contact a friend I had made during my first visit. I asked him if I could and stay with him for 10 days or so and he so kindly invited me. It was during that time that I met my partner, Silvia, and with a lot of cinematic romance, which is a story all in itself, I eventually found myself dropping everything in England and moving to Matera – and here I am!
a view of the Sassi di Matera
How long have you been living in Italy now? Was it difficult to get used to a new country, in terms of culture and work?
I’ve been living in Italy for just over 3 years now. When I think back, it’s amazing to realize how naive I was to move to another country without too much thought of what that would entail. Romantic, yes…but a bit naive also. For example, I totally underestimated how difficult it would be to learn the language. That was a huge mistake and I wish I had paid more attention during language lessons at school or even have attended an Italian course or something before coming. I’ve still never had a formal Italian lesson and even though I can now hold my own in a conversation, there are still many situations where I feel completely inept. Every day I get a bit better though.
Then there’s the culture. For the English like me, I’d say that there are many similarities with Italians but also many, many differences. For instance, if you move to the south of Italy, you have to let go of any sense of organization or planning of your social life. It’s absolutely impossible to say to a friend here, ‘what are you doing next Friday at 7 pm?’ These guys don’t even know what they’re doing 5 minutes from now and you really do need to learn to go with the flow. It seems disorganized at first (in fact it IS disorganized) but eventually, you learn to let go of the ‘how’ things happen and just be confident that they probably will. This rings true for all aspects of my life here. Work, personal life, and culture. Sooner or later you find that your priorities change and now you’re the one running late to the dinner appointment at the restaurant because you’ve spotted a friend who you haven’t seen in a week or so and, well, you just have to stop and have a spritz with them…don’t you?
This side of the culture here is best summed up by my girlfriends Dad, ‘Run or walk, you always have the same amount of time left in this world!’
Based on your experience, do you have tips for people who want to move to Italy or just dream about it at the moment?
LEARN SOME ITALIAN NOW. There I shouted it and I’m actually shouting at myself in the past. Be prepared for frustration, loneliness, and the odd tantrum now and then when night after night your new Italian friends are laughing and joking about things that you simply can’t understand. Prepare yourself for that and accept that it IS going to happen. Stay the course though, it WILL get easier!
I remember one day out about 2 and a half years ago. I had gone with a large group of friends to an absolutely amazing place in the countryside to do a rafting experience. It was unbelievably beautiful. During the 3 hour adventure, our guide in the raft was apparently telling us a fascinating story using features of the landscape as part of the narrative. Everyone in the boat was loving his story and everyone was laughing and joking with him along the way. Everyone except me of course. I obviously couldn’t even catch a word at that time and I felt stupid, frustrated and angry as hell.
It was the first time in my life where my language, the so-called international language, was completely useless to me and I experienced what it was truly like to be an immigrant for the first time. I hated it and to be fair, I was really grumpy and distant from everyone for the whole day. What a nightmare. It’s a great example of what I meant about my naivety. As an English mother tongue, I’d never even entertained the concept of not being able to understand or be understood before. It was a massive wake up call and it’s definitely something people should think about before moving to any foreign country.
an enchanting image of Castelmezzano
I ask this question every time but I am too curious about it, probably because it’s the question that gets the funniest answers: speaking of cultural differences, what is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Is there something you still cannot get used to and probably never will?
I’ve learned to get used to a lack of organisation in my social life and I’ve actually learned to appreciate it too. However, where work is concerned, or getting the internet installed in your house etc, I still find myself going crazy. Sometimes we get guests who book an experience with us 6 months or more before they arrive and I turn into the classic British panicked person saying, ‘we have to book the tour guide, restaurant, etc NOW!’ My girlfriend just gives me a tired look and says, ‘Greg if I ring that restaurant now to make a reservation for next year, they’re just going to laugh at me…’ so I have to let go and trust that it will happen. I don’t think I’ll ever get fully used to that, to be honest!
Then there are the paradoxes and contradictions that I’m sure exist in any culture. For example, if put your regular south Italian in the public street, they will amiably amble from pillar to post, talking to everyone they see, drinking a coffee or eating an ice-cream all the while incredibly relaxed, peaceful and slow. This in itself can be entertaining for a number of reasons. For example, Materans seem to have no ability, whatsoever, to walk and talk at the same time. They walk a few steps and then stop when they have to say something. It can take anywhere up to an hour for them to get going again. It’s hilarious.
More frustratingly, never underestimate the ability for a Materan (or any Italian for that matter) to stand or stop in the most unpractical places. This includes doorways, the top of staircases or super narrow streets. At times it’s like they live in a super relaxed, care-free bubble all of their own. Again, hilarious. However, and this is where the paradox comes in, put your average Materan/Italian in a car, with their children or in ANY place that serves food or coffee and it’s like a switch is flipped. They become crazy, impatient, rude and basically a bit insane. Hilarious. I’ll never get over this…!
What is the thing you miss the most about your country, family aside? And is there something of Italy you feel you’d really miss if you ever moved back to the UK?
I miss English beer and the pub of course! Italy is full of places that they call ‘pubs’ but any other English will know that they’re not pubs at all…fancy bars maybe…but not pubs.
If I had to go back one day, I would miss literally everything! The people, the scenery, the food, the weather and the quality of life I’ve found here. I’d miss that sense of being human that southern Italy conjures in a person.
After living in Italy for quite a while now, do you feel that Italy has changed you? If so, in what ways?
There’s no doubt about it, I’m a lot calmer and more at peace with myself after living here in Basilicata. I’m far more in tune with what, how, where and with who I eat. I don’t think I’ve ever cared about food so much in my life. Lunch has never been so important to me. Nor has the ability to actually be outside and not be cold and soaking wet from the rain! I’m far more interested in the clothes I buy now too! Italian style – it’s the best! Also, though at first it drove me crazy, not queuing in an orderly fashion for just about anything is something I kind of like now. In fact, I find myself getting a massive kick out of seeing the English tourists losing their minds over this at bus stops, airports or bars. Chill out inglesi!!
I find that I appreciate the simple things in life a lot more. Whether it’s the simple joy of eating a juicy, freshly picked orange from the Agriturismo or the nice little joke and a chat I can have with the numerous local businesses, Basilicata has taught me that it’s the simplicity in life that makes life worth living. In fact, I saw this great quote from a brilliant Italian film I watched called ‘Italians’. ‘La vita è troppo breve per non essere italiano’ Life is too short to not be Italian. I think I might have that put on my tombstone…
In your agriturismo, you offer amazing food experiences. Food is a key part of Italian culture, after all. What is your favorite Italian dish and why? And what is the one food or dish foreigners absolutely have to try, when they come to Italy?
This is an unbelievably difficult question. Food isn’t just ‘a’ key part of the Italian culture I’m experiencing, it’s ‘THE’ key part. Food is everything here. It’s unashamedly at the centre of life, which kind of makes sense really if you think about it as we literally can’t live without it.
I’ve tried many amazing dishes during my time here and I have a good few favourites that everyone should try if they get the chance. One of my favourite pasta dishes is an amazing dish that my girlfriend’s amazing Mum cooks at the farm for our guests. It’s a cavatelli pasta dish with chickpeas, speck and artichoke purée. It’s simply divine. Another favourite pasta dish, again from Silvia’s Mum, is a tagliatelle dish she makes in the summer with prosciutto crudo and our own, organically grown melons. The first time I tried that I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Other favourites of mine include fava bean purée and chicory and virtually anything that includes Basilicata’s unique flash-fried sweet peppers (they are amazing!). For breakfast, I’d actually always choose something from our neighbouring region, Puglia, a ‘pasticcioto’, which is like a little sweet pastry pie with custard and cherry jam inside. Amazing.
I also absolutely LOVE some of the seafood and I think I could eat well made fried calamari coated in lemon juice ALL day long. Also, I love these amazing freshly grilled octopus sandwiches that are covered in fresh olive oil and lemon juice when we go to the seaside.
Marisa, Silvia’s mom, busy cooking
You live in an amazing yet quite remote location, in terms of tourism. Basilicata is a bit off-the-beaten-track when it comes to traditional Italian tours. Can you tell people why they should visit Basilicata?
Basilicata is very much an untouched part of this incredible country. It’s a region where you can still really see authentic and traditional Italian life. It’s got an incredible amount of history also, going all the way back to stories of people like Spartacus and even thousands of years before that!
Despite offering an opportunity to see Italy at its most untouched and unspoiled, it’s still a great place to experience authentic Italy without the thousands and thousands of other tourists that insist on overlooking the south and overcrowding the more picture postcard places available in Italy. As someone who lives in Italy now, when I visit some parts of places like Florence and Rome I notice how ‘manufactured’ the experience has become and also how distant it feels from the real Italian culture I live in every day. This makes me worry that some parts of Italy are developing a Disney Land-esque type of quality that seems to be having often untold effects on the local people.
Whether it’s grandmas in the Florence region, like that of a good friend of my girlfriends, who are utterly fed up of feeling like they’re in a tourist attraction every day of the year or the stories I hear of young people being forced out of their home cities because they simply can’t afford to rent or buy houses anymore, I find the obsession with the so-called ‘big 3’ (Rome, Venice and Florence) frustrating and worrying.
Basilicata really can offer people something so different and so much more in tune with traditions and a beautiful Italian culture. Of course, I worry that Matera might become like Florence etc at some point but at least with our project, I hope that we can develop a more sustainable tourism that protects and supports the local economy and traditions.
Speaking of tourism, can you suggest people three experiences they absolutely have to make to enjoy Italy at its best?
- A wedding. Any Italian wedding though particularly one in the south I would guess. It’s a totally crazy affair where you’ll eat like you’ve never eaten before and have an amazing time! Never pass up the possibility to go to a wedding here if you get the chance!
- Festa della Bruna – Matera. Every July 2nd Matera celebrates its patron saint by spending thousands of euros on a huge float, riding it through the city with horses and then completely destroying it in a frenzied attack in the town centre. It’s considered one of the most dangerous festivals in Europe and it’s a day-long affair of market stalls, parades, exhilaration, and fireworks. I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like to see it in real life.
- Staying at an Agriturismo. The ‘Agriturismo’ is a concept so obviously created by Italians. Build a farm, grow unbelievable organic produce and then serve it to your guests either on grand, traditional hours-long Sunday lunches or to your guests who stay with you throughout the year. They’re family run and often set in stunningly beautiful places. Honestly, Agriturismos are probably one of Italy’s best-kept secrets where American and British tourists are concerned…I can’t recommend the experience enough!
What was your experience with learning Italian? Was it difficult for you to learn it? Do you have tips for people studying Italian?
I’ve found learning Italian INCREDIBLY difficult. In fact, I still do! It’s an unbelievably complicated language from an English point of view. There are rules upon rules upon exceptions upon exceptions. There were certainly times when I felt it would be completely impossible to get anywhere with it. However, with a bit of perseverance and a lot of help from my girlfriend and other friends around me, I have made some good progress.
My advice would be as follows. 1. Make sure you know how your own language works before you start learning another. This is incredibly helpful. 2. Accept that it’s going to be difficult, frustrating and that there are ALWAYS going to be times when you can’t understand. It sounds so strange, right? But I’ve found that it’s so important to accept this early on. It takes the pressure off and lets you focus on the steps and not on the mountain. 3. Practice, practice, practice. Make mistakes every day. Spend a long time not understanding anything and eventually, I promise you, things will become clearer and you’ll start making progress.
Thank you so much, Greg, 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, and another American who moved to beautiful Tuscany.