Interviewing expats is definitely one of my favorite topics, here on the blog.
I have been chatting with foreigners who moved to Italy for a long time now but there’s always something new to learn from them, a different point of view, a peculiar experience with Italian life. This is why I feel really honored to be given the chance to speak, even if virtually, with so many different people.
Today I have the opportunity of chatting with Denisa Ivančinová, a young girl from Slovakia who came to Italy to study and never returned home: she fell in love with an Italian guy and ended up calling Bologna home. This might seem like the usual fairytale about finding love in Italy but her story is a bit more complex than that.
She is very honest about how difficult life in Italy is, especially when it comes to finding a job. In the interview, Denisa speaks very openly about her nightmare experience with job hunting here in Italy and I can’t say she isn’t right, unfortunately. But there are things that need to be told, life in Italy is not always a bed of roses.
But the interview is also filled with joy and lots of laughter and that’s why I like it so much. Denisa tells us not-so-nice stories about work in Italy as an expat but also many jokes about life here and about learning the Italian language. And I can also feel there is a great love for the country, despite all its challenges, which is always great!
Anyway, it’s time to let her speak now!
Hello Denisa! 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! Thank you for having me on Instantly Italy. You can’t imagine what a pleasure it is for me as a long-term follower of yours. My Italian settling down began with just a regular cliché – falling in love with an Italian while taking part in the Erasmus+ student exchange. Now it’s been 5 years (I’m 26) since I started to call Bologna my home.
I come from Slovakia, but I do my living as an English teacher at private language schools. I graduated from British and American studies and always worked in an English-speaking environment as a teacher, translator, and interpreter. I adore dogs, coffee and theatre and luckily, I find Bologna very abundant in all of these!
When did you visit Italy for the first time? What was your first impression about the country and has that first impression changed after living here for a while?
My first love affair with Italy happened when I was 17 and I was visiting Vieste with my mom. I immediately felt at ease with the environment and my mom was joking that on day 2 of our holidays I was already buying oranges with my cheesy Italian for an entire Slovak resort. No need to say how spectacular the Pugliese beaches are.
However, coming to Bologna was a whole different story. Bologna as an Erasmus destination was a choice based on my university classmates’ recommendations. It was a perfect compromise between the distance from home, acceptable cost of life and straight budget of a student. Yet, Bologna gave me some difficult time at first and it wasn’t love at first sight at all. I remember saying I could never imagine having a family here. Everything seemed so far unfamiliar and difficult to grasp, I felt very alienated.
Thankfully, the very first days of my stay, I happened to make friends with the locals who really made the transition period smooth and involved me in their daily routines which helped me to better understand the nuances of Bolognese people. Coming from Slovakia, I couldn’t wrap my head around certain things and many times I was desperate and angry for the Italian ‘modo di fare’.
I’ll give you an example. My university exam was planned in May and my professor never showed up until the very last date in the exam period at the end of July, despite our previous communication. I am a rigid, rules-stickling and tense person thus living in Italy challenged me a lot! Sometimes I tend to think that destiny sent me here to become more phlegmatic and relaxed about life 🙂
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?
Absolutely! Now here you have to understand that a regular Italian is a total rule-breaker and slacker for a Slovak mind. Despite my Slovak family have already labeled me as an Italian, there are still things that I will probably never surpass like the relativity of the Italian driving or the total absence of queuing. I really don’t know what would living in Naples do to me.
Another thing is quite corny. Italian dinner time is just too late for me. I thought I will get used to it eventually, but I just can’t outwit my digestion. So if I need to attend any dinner with my Italian friends after 9 pm, I must eat something beforehand. Ideally, I dine at 6 pm, like in the hospitals, you know…or at least my boyfriend says so.
One acquired ‘Italian thing’ I am particularly ashamed of is that I stopped being rigidly punctual for the meetings. This means that I don’t come 10 minutes before the meeting anymore, but probably 5 minutes after. It makes me feel like a real bad girl.
When I wrote my 10 things I hate about Italy post, you told me that you agreed with me on the point regarding jobs – or the lack of. Can you tell us more about your experience with the work environment in Italy?
I only have extreme experience with the job market here. If there was just one reason that really makes me regret choosing Italy as a country to live in, it’s definitely the disastrous condition of the job market. As I told you, I’ve been here for 5 years, always have worked a lot but never really had a proper full time or part-time contract. Neither of my employers hasn’t been able to give me that, despite I am punctual, flexible, professional, ambitious, eager to work day and night and speak 5 languages.
Later I understood that there’s nothing personal about it and many locals struggle with finding a job too. The job market here is completely different than the Slovak one. My first employer, a state high school where I participated in a project in which I taught in over 90 classes left me without a salary for 8 months. That’s when I understood that if you want anything done here, you have to outstrip the limits of what we consider stalking in Slovakia. I am still upset about how unwilling those people were despite I spoke their language and sought their help.
A very similar case happened to me right after that and I literally felt like ‘This is it, I’m leaving Italy’. I couldn’t stand it anymore, my family kept on repeating to me how much I waste my years and potential here. And of course, all the pension contributions I could have paid in a meantime. In Slovakia, many university students have already signed a job contract before they even graduate (see what I sacrificed :D). I really miss this social aspect of Italy. I remember when I saw the film “Quo vado” with Checco Zalone whose dream job was always to have a “posto fisso”. I feel like quoting him every single time when an interviewer asks me what my dream job was!
Speaking of likes and dislikes, what do you like the most about Italy and what is the one thing you really can’t stand?
I love the Italian sense of belonging. You’d rarely find an Italian who’s ashamed of being Italian. Needless to say, Italians are lucky to have inherited a cultural and historical legacy, which certainly adds up on national identity and self-esteem. I don’t wanna sound cliché, but living in Italy means being constantly surrounded by beauty. The way people eat, dress, talk, live – Italy is simply a feast for the senses.
One of my Italian pet peeves is students wearing sweatpants at school. In Slovakia, you would be considered drastically impolite and underdressed if you showed up in sweatpants at school. And then old but gold geographical confusion about Slovakia vs. Slovenia/Czechoslovakia.
You come from Slovakia, a little country I bet Italians know very little of. What is the thing you miss the most about Slovakia (apart from friends and family)? And what is the one thing about Italy you miss when you are in Slovakia?
Apart from family and friends, I certainly miss the order. People do queue, offices give you the information you came for, drivers respect the traffic rules. But I also miss the affordable theatre tickets (culture in Italy is astronomically high), cozy dim-lit coffee houses where you can sit down with one cappuccino for three hours and get lost in your book and lastly, we have the most amazing secondhands!
On contrary, when in Slovakia I really miss the Italian vegetable-oriented cuisine. Our cuisine is full of meat and fat, with a very little assortment of veggies. Do I need to mention how much I love Italian coffee? What I sometimes recall with nostalgia are “botteghe” – small stores with artisan products that have almost disappeared in my country but are still strongly present in Italy.
Apart from becoming more relaxed about life, do you feel that Italy has changed you? If so, how?
Obviously I have discovered a whole new world of flavors – figuratively and physically. My idea of absolute enlightenment is to truly adopt the “Italian” method of wellbeing by Carla Fergusson Barberini (look it up on google :-)). Speaking of everyday habit fun facts, of course, I have quickly adopted sweet breakfast consisting of cappuccino and brioche and it’s hard coming for a Slovak who normally eats fried eggs and raw peppers at 7 am.
Italy showed me how to enjoy and appreciate (not only) food and the company of people around it. In Italy, food means a huge socializing opportunity and funnily enough, my social life tripled after moving here. People just don’t live next to each other for years, they do connect easily and that’s the reason I love it here.
Lots of people dream of doing what you do and move to Italy. What are your recommendations for people dreaming of living in Italy? Is there something they have to know?
Spoiler alert: many readers who plan on moving to Italy will be upset about this. That’s the reason I started my blog. I wanted to map this entire myth of dolce vita and Italian carelessness as a key to the happy life we have been fed with for ages in our culture.
For instance, Slovak people dream of Italy as if it were a Danielle Steel movie. I have to confess that every week there’s at least one person who asks about moving to Italy in the “Slovaks in Italy” Facebook group and the answers are usually the same, e.g. “Don’t go there, if you search for financial and social stability” or “Italy is not what it used to be 20 years ago”. The truth is, I never imagined living here would be this hard. Of course, there are all these sweet stereotypes about Italians and most of them are true, but the job situation is really cruel.
As I mentioned earlier, I have been actively searching for a stable job for 5 years now and still haven’t found a single employer willing to give me the type of contract other than casual. The idea of settling down and starting a family is a pure utopia, in fact, Italian people start family extremely late compared to the Slovak standard. There are many people coming for seasonal jobs, especially to the mountains or by the seaside when the season’s high. It’s also rather improbable that you’d find a foreigner in Italy who’s single (or living here just for the sake of it). Usually, the non-Italians move here because they are somehow romantically involved or have a family with an Italian citizen, which is also my case.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it here and I have come to the point of calling Italy my home now. But I would never end up living here voluntarily if it wasn’t for my partner simply because of the fact that this state has a poor social security system, high unemployment rate and makes it extremely difficult to find a proper job or start a business (with or without a language). Let say EU citizens should deal with less paperwork than non-EU citizens, but still, I came across some mind-blowing obstacles in the offices due to the fact of being a non-Italian. One day I’d like to write a movie script about it haha. Checco Zalone, brace yourself!
Let’s speak of tourism now. You live in one of the most beautiful towns in Italy: Bologna. What are the most beautiful places there? Is there a special place you’d recommend to someone visiting the area?
Bologna totally has the “genius loci” and the nice thing about the city is that there’s always something to discover, I personally feel I need another life to explore all Bologna’s secrets. My absolutely favorite zen (and a bit hipster) place is the greenhouse turned into a coffeehouse called Vetro in Giardini Margherita. Osteria del Sole in the old city market quarter where they only serve you with wine and beer and you have to bring your own cold cuts.
Obviously, I’d obligatorily recommend the “7 secrets of Bologna” tour that reveals the major sightseeings with a pinch of historical fun facts. Another wonderful and untypical initiative I would like to see myself is “Bologna sotterranea” – an underground route through the canals of Bologna.
Speaking of Italy in general, what are the three things people visiting the country should do to experience Italy at is best?
1. Eat at the locals’ house. Meet the local people and be their guest. It’s quite easy to get invited for lunch or dinner :-). And believe me, no restaurant gives you that amount of love.
2. Travel around. Italy is a world itself. Once you’re here, explore the cities and regions around. Even if you end up in the forgotten village in the middle of nowhere, it’s certainly one of the most romantic places you have ever been to.
3. Take a ride with a skilled driver in prime time traffic! I’d call it a new adrenaline sport discipline. One of my top Italian experiences was sitting in the old Fiat 500 hastily driven by my Italian friend in the tiniest streets of Calabrian borough.
Speaking of food, instead, what is the one food people should not leave Italy without trying? The one that sums up, in your opinion, the Italian food culture?
It depends on the region you visit, as everybody claims their cuisine it THE ONE. I bet Bolognese would probably convince you that it’s the tagliatelle al ragú (or what the rest of the world mistakenly calls spaghetti bolognese). But I’d also recommend impepata di cozze, spaghetti cacio e pepe, piadina, risotto and the list goes on…:).
What about your Italian? How did you learn it? Can you tell us a bit about your experience with learning Italian?
That’s a tricky question because I got together with my partner only because he was the only Italian in our little group of friends who spoke English. We only communicated in English the entire first year of our relationship, despite I understood Italian well enough from the language courses I had attended before arriving in Bologna. But damn was it difficult for me to speak.
I am a person who vastly expresses her funny personality through conversational puns and jokes. Now, try to do it when you don’t speak the language! My self-esteem dropped. So many times when we went out for dinner, I was bored by myself, being there, seated by the table full of people and not being able to let my funny side out which makes a huge part of my social identity.
So one summer night, encouraged by the Spritz Aperol I started to speak Italian out of blue, making a million mistakes in one sentence but convinced I’m gonna speak perfect Italian one day. I have been through some very embarrassing situations when I mixed up the words and said (amongst the publishable ones) “scoreggiare” instead of “correggere” in front of my boyfriend’s mom etc.
Before leaving for my first Erasmus study placement, I decided to take lessons at Società Dante Alighieri in Slovakia and I loved it. I also had some private lessons once a week with a student of Italian. Being a language teacher myself, this experience served me in how I structure my lessons today. It has to be fun! Nevertheless, if you’re willing to do it, you improve miraculously fast.
I personally love watching movies in the original language with the original subtitles or listening to music and figuring out the lyrics (I really recommend Fabrizio de André’s songs for any Italian learner). Now I speak Italian most of the day and sometimes in a rush create hybrids such as “scongelate” instead of defrosting. But as with everything in life, you can’t take yourself seriously. Italian is a romantic language until you don’t need to take notes in it at the lecture :D.
Thank you so much, Denisa, 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 and a Texan lady who lives in Turin.