You know how much I love chatting with expats, so you can easily imagine how happy I am that the Expats in Italy section is back!
Every interview is truly special to me because it is a great way to learn something new about my country. I really like seeing Italy through a foreigner’s eye, someone who is not Italian but has been living here long enough to experience Italian life and our (crazy) way of thinking. So I feel really honored every time someone accepts to be interviewed for this blog!
This time, I get the chance to interview Linda, the owner – together with her husband – of The Beehive Hostel in Rome. As it always happens, I found the Beehive on Instagram and I was immediately hooked. I love Linda’s way of communicating about living in Rome and daily life at the Beehive Hostel: her account basically makes you want to pack your bags and go – and it’s not only because, as Linda says in the interview, Italy is very photogenic but also because she is really good at capturing its atmosphere!
As it happens with every interview, I got to reflect on some traits of the Italian life and behavior. I found Linda’s answers really interesting, especially those regarding having a business in Italy (spoiler: it’s challenging to say the least). But, as usual, there’s always a good dose of laughter, like when she tells how difficult finding ice in Italy is – why are you Americans so obsessed with ice? 🙂 – and how protective Italian mums are with their babies.
Well, it’s time I stop chatting and let Linda speak about her experience in Italy!
Hello Linda! 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 Cinzia! Thanks for inviting me to share my story with your readers. My name is Linda Martinez. I’m Puertorican, American and now Italian through naturalization. My father was in the US military and I was born in Germany and grew up in Puerto Rico and Panama. My father was last stationed in Colorado, USA where my immediate family still lives today.
I went to university at Colorado College and received my degree in English Literature. If I made a CV and wrote down every job I’ve ever had, it would be several pages long. I’ve had many different kinds of jobs and after many fruitless searches, I finally found my calling when my husband and I moved to Rome in 1999 to open our hostel, The Beehive.
You left everything to move to Rome and start a business there. Why? What was the reason for such a choice?
My husband and I were not living our lives in a way that satisfied us or that we found meaningful and we needed to make a change. I don’t say “wanted” here, but “needed”. It was absolutely necessary for our future happiness and mental health to get out of the place we were living and the work we were doing. We wanted to live internationally and work independently. We wanted to spend all of our time together rather than with other people doing work that we didn’t care about. The only way to do that was to create something for ourselves together.
Setting up a business in Italy can be quite challenging. Can you tell us a bit about the process and the difficulties you encountered – if any (but I am sure there must have been at least a few! )?
Oh my. Where to start? I’m afraid the list is just too long and after so many years of doing this activity, it still continues to be challenging and problematic. Even now despite nearly 20 years of critical success and paying into this system, we are struggling and life can be stressful and full of anxiety. Italy was founded on the backs of small businesses and yet government here does nothing to help us or to encourage entrepreneurship. If anything it makes laws and regulations that stifle and hamper small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Was it easy to get used to living and working in Italy? What would you recommend to people who dream of doing the same?
I felt right at home here from the beginning. While there are bureaucracy and day to day challenges, I am much happier here than I ever was living in the US. I would recommend to anyone dreaming of moving to Italy to spend a bit of time here not on holiday. While you’re on holiday, you could move to anywhere in the world. Living somewhere as a resident is much different than visiting a place as a tourist. Living here, you have to be flexible and open to a new adventure and comfortable with the fact that things will not be like they are at home.
The whole point of moving to a new country is for things to be different and not exactly the same. Don’t try to recreate an exact duplicate here of where you’ve come from or you’ll just end up complaining a lot and making yourself unhappy. Learn Italian. Research. There’s no excuse in this day and age for people not to know what they need before moving here – there is so much information online now.
However, do keep in mind that there is only so much you can learn online. At that point, it’s still all cerebral. If you have the luxury of it, it’s good to have the practical aspect of actually living here for a bit for a complete picture as to whether or not making the move here is really for you. Otherwise, if you don’t have the luxury, you can just say “screw it” and dive right in like we did!
What was your first impression of Italy, the first time you visited? Has such an impression changed over time?
The architecture, the landscapes – everything about Italy made a huge and positive impression on me. After all this time, I am still in awe of Italy. I still look around me and think how fortunate I am that I live here. I am still blown away by the depth of history here. I have friends in other countries who say how much they love my photos & stories on Instagram. Italy is just very photogenic. It looks like I am constantly on holiday, but it’s just my normal life.
Now my absolute favorite question, the one I always ask. What is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Do you have a fun story for us?
When we first started our hostel, one of the things we wanted was to have some yummy breakfast items available and so we started out with banana bread and smoothies – I think we called them Banana Maximus and Smoothus Romanus. Something like that – we just made up silly Latin sounding names for them. For the smoothies, we were used to making them with frozen fruit which you can find in abundance in the US. But in Rome in 1999, frozen fruit – well, frozen anything in the neighborhood alimentari was not quite a thing and there were no large supermarkets here back then.
We searched and searched and even asked a few Italian friends and they were like “Frozen fruit? Why would you want frozen fruit? You can’t buy frozen fruit.” We had to explain that in the US, you actually could. It’s funny though, but ice is still up there with a unicorn sighting, here in Rome at least. The local supermarket finally sells small bags of it which is very handy now for our aperitivo happy hour at our hostel on the weekends. I do often find myself explaining to guests that ice is not a common thing here and you will not get iced water at the restaurant.
Some other more personal culture shock moments happened when I was pregnant and after we had our first daughter. Drinking a glass or two of wine while I was pregnant was perfectly acceptable although with my first pregnancy I had an aversion to it. In the US, drinking alcohol while you’re pregnant is regarded as child abuse by some people.
Our first child was born in August and the first time my husband took her out for a little passeggiata around the neighborhood she just had a sleeveless onesie on and he was carrying her in his arms. He scandalized all the older women in the neighborhood who pleaded with him to put her in a stroller and cover her up from head to toe even though it was a thousand degrees outside. With all three of our daughters, we perfected the art of politely smiling, nodding and agreeing while doing whatever we wanted to anyway.
Speaking of cultural differences, is there something you still cannot get used to and probably never will?
One thing that I still have a problem with is being late for appointments. I still get very stressed if I am running behind even though I know here, it’s not a big deal. I’ve eased up on it a bit, so if I’m 5-10 minutes late, I don’t sweat it too much, but I still feel an underlying low-level stress. Also, if I receive an invitation, I respond in the positive or negative and if for some reason I can’t make it, I let the host know. I have never liked the ambiguity here of whether someone is coming or not to an event I’m hosting. I just assume now that people aren’t coming and then I’m pleasantly surprised if they do.
Say that you’ll leave Italy one day: what is the thing you’d miss the most? And what is the one you absolutely won’t miss at all?
We actually did leave Italy for 2 years. We moved to Bali, Indonesia from 2009-2011 and took a pause from life in Italy. The things we missed most were the food, the landscape, the architecture, the weather, speaking Italian – the list goes on. The thing I wouldn’t miss at all is the complete inefficiency of government which has led to the degradation of the infrastructure and the nonsensical and diabolical bureaucracy and laws here. I also wish there was a stronger and more intrinsic sense of civic duty here.
You live in Italy and work in tourism. What would you recommend to people visiting Italy for the first time, so that they can make the most of their experience?
I would definitely recommend that people take at least one walking tour of a museum, archaeological site, etc. with a reputable walking tour company or with a private licensed guide. There are many companies to choose from, but there are several that offer small group tours which is the best way to go on a tour if you can’t do it privately. You learn so much more from a knowledgeable local guide especially in a city like Rome that is layers upon layers of nearly 3,000 years of history.
It makes the experience of being here so much more rewarding when you actually learn something about a place you are visiting rather than just visiting it superficially. A lot of people skip this in order to save money, but I think it’s incredibly worthwhile. We do it ourselves in virtually every new place we visit.
Now to beautiful Rome: name three things people must absolutely not miss when visiting the city.
People should definitely eat the food here – cacio & pepe, supplì, Roman-style pizza and of course all the many delicious gelato options there are here.
Visit at least two museums – the Galleria Borghese is a must-see if you can manage to get a reservation (book ahead!) and then visit a less-visited museum like Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps or the Centrale Montemartini.
Lastly, I would say do something fun that you would normally do in your hometown. Do you like to cycle? Then rent a bicycle and spend a day out on the Appia Antica and the Parco degli Acquedotti. Do you like to cook? Take a cooking class. Do you want to shop for souvenirs? Find out about local artisans, markets & shops where you can find some unique and affordable souvenirs that also support an artisan or small business.
the garden at the Beehive Hostel
What was your experience with learning Italian? Can you tell us more about your learning process and maybe suggest a few tips to people studying the language?
When we first moved here, I took a class for 2 weeks at a local language school, but I didn’t learn much because I had a student group in my class that was really disruptive. After the class finished, I was too busy working and so I hired a private tutor who then became a good friend. However, soon after I had my first child, I was just too busy with work and my child and then children to devote any time to anything else. The rest of my Italian language learning has just been on my own which for me hasn’t been the most effective way. I come from a Spanish speaking background – Spanish was actually my first language – so I never felt uncomfortable with Italian and because of this I became lazy with the language. I am fluent and I have no problems talking to anyone, but my grammar is terrible and my vocabulary is limited. I could certainly use to improve.
I recently started taking lessons with a friend of mine, Lucrezia Oddone who has the YouTube channel Learn Italian with Lucrezia, but because of my work schedule, I had to pause. It’s really frustrating because I do want to improve my Italian and my children who are bilingual often insist that I need to take lessons. I plan to start up again with Lucrezia in the fall/winter. It’s never too late to learn!
Thank you so much, Linda, for taking the time to share 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 and a British couple who lives and work in Garfagnana, Tuscany.