I am really happy today because it’s time to chat with an expat again!
I have been following today’s guest on Instagram for a long time and I knew she would be perfect for this section of the blog. Pree moved to Italy in 2020 and I have read her Instagram posts about the many challenges she had to face while moving to Italy during such a difficult time.
I was really interested in interviewing her because her experience is way far from the stereotyped under-the-Tuscan-sun image of expat life in my country and I was sure she could offer a different point of view. I also knew she was perfect for this interview because she has strong opinions – for example, the fact that she prefers American pizza to the Italian one – and I love that!
As I told you, her name is Pree, she lives in Milan and shares her daily life in Italy on her Instagram account. I am really happy she found the time to answer my questions and I am sure you’ll love this interview, so it’s time to let her speak.
Hello Pree! 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! Thank you for extending an invitation for an Instantly Italy expat interview! My name is Pree, and I have been living in Italy as an expat since June 2020. I came here on a research fellowship to conduct a research project in cancer immunotherapies at an institute in Milan. Before that, I lived in California, and got my PhD in Biology of Aging in Los Angeles.
When I’m not in the lab, I enjoy running, traveling (when I have the energy for it!), and writing. I run a blog called secondgendesi.com, and its associated Instagram account secondgendesi, and on both platforms, I discuss my experience growing up as a “second gen desi”, a person born and raised in a country different from that of the origin of their South Asian parents. I was born and raised in the USA, while my parents grew up in South India before immigrating to the USA. On the blog, I go into more details on these topics while on Instagram, I give snapshots of my current life abroad.
You have come to Italy for work and it seems this is your first time here. Why have you picked Italy as your destination?
When I was in the middle of my PhD, I had the opportunity to go abroad to Spain for a week to attend a conference. I only had one “free” day in Barcelona, and I absolutely loved the vibe of the city. It was my first time flying somewhere internationally alone, and it was the first time I consciously remember wanting to move abroad after my PhD.
For a few months after that trip, I was learning Spanish on my own using an app, but then I soon realized that the post-doc fellowships available in Spain at the time had deadlines before I would get my PhD. After doing some research, I found opportunities in Italy that matched up with my current timeline. I thought it would still be a great opportunity to live in Southern Europe for a while, while also doing something related to my career.
What was your first impression of the country?
I was not too phased by the country when I first arrived, but I did feel alone since I had to do a two-week quarantine upon arrival in Milan. I felt like I was missing out during that time because it was in June 2020, when everyone else was able to get back to “normal” life (at least for a few months!).
I was also living in a neighborhood of Milan that wasn’t the best. It was near my workplace, but the landlord of my temporary residence was not being cooperative, and I had to navigate moving to a new location without much assistance.
Once I was free to get out of quarantine, I was able to explore “better” parts of the city and enjoy some of the things people like about Milan and Italian life.
Has that first impression changed, after living in the country for a year?
It’s certainly been a year of ups and downs, and I’ve learned a lot about life here after being here for a year. I imagine my impression can change over time, but even over a span of 6 months, I’ve noticed changes in my impression of the country.
In the first 6 months, I was enamored with the lifestyle and of all the things about Italian life that were different from the US. But then stress from work, difficulties with the language, and second-wave COVID restrictions impact on interregional travel affected my outlook.
I also had struggles with integrating bureaucratically. I did not receive my permesso card until about 10 months after my original visit to the Questura. I received my tessera sanitaria only about a month ago. Both expire by the end of 2021, and the fact that it was such a mess to process these items was stressful to say the least! I’m sure other countries deal with their own version of bureaucratic mess, but it can be even more of an issue for a first-time expat.
Regarding Italian culture in general, what is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Is there something you think you could never get used to?
Surprisingly, I’ve gotten used to late meal times! I’ve eaten dinner as late as 10:30 pm, and something like that would have freaked me out when I was living in Los Angeles. One thing I could never get used to/ get frustrated with often is the pace at which most people get work done.
I know that the US has this reputation of overworking everyone, but at least you can count on things getting done in a timely manner. I know that here in Italy, if even a single holiday pops up during the week, or if it’s the month of August, I can expect that if I am depending on others in a matter related to work or bureaucracy, it will not get done for weeks. That can be unbelievably frustrating!
When you live abroad it is very easy to make comparisons. What do you think is better in the US and what in Italy?
It is definitely very easy to find yourself making comparisons, especially depending on your mood! I found that when I was going through periods of frustration and stress, I’d find myself thinking that the US is better, but if I was going through a good period, I’d find my day-to-day Italian life feeling better in quality. I think it might be easy to sum up the “better” things of each country in a list:
- In my experience, it is much safer to walk around at night in Italy (Milan) vs. a major city in the US. Of course, you should be wary of danger no matter where you are, but I feel so much more comfortable in Milan if I must be out late vs. than in Los Angeles.
- You can experience seasons! People love to brag about non-stop sunshine in California, but I prefer seasons.
- Even though salaries are much lower across professions, the cost of living is affordable, and better if outside of the city.
- It’s easier to find vegan options when going out to eat (particularly in major metropolitan areas) as well as a diverse array of cuisines and fusion-style cooking.
- The idea of a one-stop-shop -going to Target for your pharmacy, grocery, and clothing needs can be super convenient at times!
- The emphasis on innovation. Again, something you see mostly in metropolitan areas where funding of certain industries is saturated, but the idea of start-ups and recruiting a diverse talent pool to tackle challenges is “easier” to do here than in other places in the world.
Can you tell us a bit more about the work environment? Is it easy to work in Italy? Are there any big differences from the US?
I think most people have a distorted impression of a scientist’s life, and a lot of that due to misinformation. Interestingly, I find that life in academic research is common across the globe. Working in a lab in Italy is like that of the US. In Italy though, the only issue is related to finances and availability of goods, the latter of which we must plan well in advance to purchase supplies for experiments.
Working in academia can have its challenges in general, but a lot of it is like Italian life, especially the fact that in relation to both, things go at a snail’s pace 😂.
Lots of people dream of moving to Italy and sometimes they have a stereotyped image of the country. What are your recommendations to people who want to move to Italy for life or work?
It’s okay to dream and have expectations for what you want out of the experience! Just brace yourself and know that anything can happen. In my case, I didn’t have any firm expectations in mind, but I did go in with some goals on what I wanted to achieve from my experience both professionally and personally.
Unfortunately, a lot of the things I expected from this experience turned out a lot differently than what I planned, but some things turned out amazing! Just know that even if you go in thinking this will be a great 3-year adventure, it’s okay if you’ve had enough and want to stop at 1.5 years, or if it’s better than you’ve imagined and have realized Italy is the place you want to live forever!
I highly recommend that everyone give expat life a chance at least once in their lives.
Let’s speak of tourism now. You live in Milan. Do you like the city? What would you recommend to people visiting the city? Is there something not-to-be-missed, excluding the big sights?
Oh, Milan 😂. Coming from Los Angeles, I feel like the city has not been intimidating at all. I love how convenient the metro is, and even the regional trains. At first, I thought I loved the city, but over time I don’t think that “love” was based in the novelty of it all. In addition that, I wondered why most people don’t even consider it in their Italy trip itineraries, but now I side with the folks who think of Milan as a stopover city 😅.
I think it’s a place for people to live and use as a home base to visit other Italian cities, but if one did want to visit Milan, you can surely see the best of it within a day! My favorite areas are near the Duomo (it is gorgeous) and Piazza Gae Aulenti (it’s one “touristy” spot that I ended up going to numerous times without intending to).
What about food in Italy? Do you like it? Is there something you miss or something great you’ve discovered, instead?
There may be people ready to kill me if I say this but…after trying pizza in Italy, I think my favorite pizza of all time would have to be from a chain restaurant in the US! I’ve shouted out Blaze Pizza countless times on social media when comparing their pizza creations to that of Italian pizzas I’ve tried—I’m surprised they haven’t offered to sponsor me 😂. I will say that the pizza I’ve tried has been limited to the Milan area, so it wouldn’t be fair of me to use that to rank Italian pizza altogether. I’ll wait until I visit Napoli to make my final decision 😉.
Recently, I went out to dinner and was able to have fresh food from an authentic Milanese trattoria that was incredibly delicious! I had a plate of pumpkin ravioli indulgently covered in olive oil and it was mouth-watering to say the least!
Overall, there are great options for vegetarians in regard to Italian cuisine, but it would be nice to have this information more transparent. I recently learned that piadina dough, at least the traditional kind, is made with lard! This is especially concerning for someone who is vegetarian for ethical and religious reasons…
Are you learning Italian? How is your learning experience going? Are you struggling and if so, why?
Before coming to Italy, I was sincerely motivated to learn Italian. I took weekend morning classes for fun a year before I got confirmation about my post-doc fellowship position. When COVID hit, I was feeling very doubtful about my prospects of being able to go, so I took a break.
When I finally made it to Italy, I knew I wanted and needed to get back to learning. I was using an app, trying to speak in Italian whenever I could, and even started taking in-person private lessons twice a week with a native speaker.
Unfortunately, my attempts were quickly soured. Perhaps it was the fact I was living in Milan, but my attempts to try to speak to baristas or shopkeepers in Italian were shut down as soon as they saw my Bank of America credit card. At work, I tried to get my colleagues to speak to me in Italian at lunch or in casual conversation, but they assumed I would prefer if they speak English to make things easier.
Oh, it only made things more difficult!
My private tutor also turned out to be impatient and rude, and I stopped seeing her after 8 sessions. That’s when the second wave of COVID hit and lockdown commenced. All of this unfortunately drove me to “take a break” from actively learning Italian.
Going forward, my desire and need to learn Italian will be based on upcoming life events. Right now I’m still in my “active break, but I am also pleasantly surprised with how far my understanding has come! I can hear a conversation between co-workers and, if they don’t speak too fast, I can comprehend about 80% of what they’re saying!
Thank you so much, Liv for taking the time to answer my questions!
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 in a 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, a Mississippi lady who is now Neapolitan, a girl from Canada who has fulfilled her dream of living in Florence, a New Yorker who now calls Ischia home, an American lady who chose the countryside near Naples as her new home, a brave lady who has moved to Italy in the midst of the pandemic, an American who has a YouTube channel about life in Italy as a foreigner, a couple who has moved from the US to a farm in Sicily, a Jamaican-American who now lives in Monti della Tolfa and an Australian who now calls Turin home.