How to Make a New Life in Italy

Thinking of pulling up your roots and setting down in La Bella Italia? Well, you’ve popped in at just the right time. Pull up an armchair, make yourself comfortable and let’s get started. I have so many things to tell you.

Before you leave

– First, and most importantly, start at the beginning (or even earlier if possible). the best thing you could do now is go back about 15 years or so and marry an Italian. That’s right! Being married to an Italian makes the bureaucracy involved so much easier. If, prompted by your guardian angels, you have done such a thing, you’re home free. If not, you’ll have to follow the bureaucratic route and get a work visa and a “permesso di soggiorno” (literally a “permission to stay”). I can’t help you with details very much, as I didn’t have to do this since I married my Italian an age ago in sunny South Africa. But here’s a site where you can get information.

– Now that you’ve been bitten by the bug, here’s your most important job. Plan, Plan and Plan some more! How will you find work? Where will you live? Will you rent a property or buy? Remember that property prices and rentals are high in comparison to average salaries. Do your homework so that you know what your possibilities are. Get on the good old Internet and research every aspect you can think of.

At this point, an exploratory trip may be useful if you can afford it. If like us, you are selling a house and moving across lock, stock and barrel, think about whether it would be better to sell all your furniture and buy new furniture when you arrive or whether you want to take your furniture with you. There is very little market in Italy for second-hand goods, so I suggest you either keep it or sell it in your country. We moved a container of furniture (at great cost) and we could have left a lot of things behind. Use the opportunity to declutter your life and your home. Remember as well, that most Italian homes are small and anything extra is likely to get in the way. You’re going to want to throw it out when you don’t know where to put it!

Start learning Italian! This may seem like an obvious point, but I’m amazed at how many people I’ve met who are convinced that the rest of the world will speak their language – English. No. Most Italians do not speak English. In fact, few of them speak it at all, and very few of them speak it well. You’re visiting their country, pay them the respect of at least trying to speak their language.They will love you for it! And to get you started, here is one of the best learning Italian Podcasts I’ve found on the Net. Take a look. Listening is free and in-depth lesson notes are provided to paid subscribers.

Bolster your savings. In our experience, the first two or three years were the most difficult. If you don’t have a job immediately, or you’ve decided to work for yourself, those savings are going to disappear at an alarming rate and you’re going to need every penny of them. It takes time to build up work relationships and a customer base in a country where everything revolves around “raccomandazioni”. My husband networked with his initial clients to expand his client base, but it took a long time.

When you get here

This is when the most exciting part starts! And this is where the fork meets the pasta. Your success and your happiness depend on what you do now. Speak Italian as much as possible, even if your hair curls and you instinctively cringe to hear your crummy accent or your poor grammar. It doesn’t matter! No one expects perfection. Were you basically understood? Yes? Then you did well. No? Then find out where you went wrong and work on it. It’s tempting to stop talking because you feel so stupid. I know; I’ve been there. But you have to fight that temptation. If you can afford to do an Italian course, find one in your area. If not, many local municipalities (“comune” in Italian) offer free Italian lessons for foreigners. Take advantage of them! Courses have two benefits: they get you talking and they get you out of the house and meeting people. It’s a win-win situation!

– In conversation, avoid negative comparisons between your country and Italy (unless you’re showing the negative side of your own country). Nobody likes hearing their homeland criticized by another, and even less by a visitor. When I was a child, we called Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) settlers in South Africa “when-wes” because many of their conversations started with, “when we were in Rhodesia…”and ended with some negative comment about South Africa. Don’t be a when-we. Focus on the positive and people will respond to you in a positive way.

Accept that your new life will never be the same as the old. La Bella Italia is a seductive force, but she can also be a hard task master. Accept the bad with the good and you’ll have more chance of a fulfilling, ulcer free stay. Getting any official documents can be a slow nightmare and often one department doesn’t know what another department requires and instructions may be conflicting. Take a deep breath and go with the flow. You will get there eventually, along with all the other poor souls in the waiting room with you. Use the time and the camaraderie to practice your Italian.

In many official places, as well as banks, hospital departments and some shops or market stalls, you will be expected to take a number from a machine standing in the corner and wait your turn. This is a good thing, as it scuppers any inveterate queue jumpers from reverting to their normal bad behaviour! Everyone knows that Italians are incapable of forming and maintaining a single queue. Queues without numbers quickly degenerate into multiple queues or (my personal favourite) a nondescript clump where the jumpers sneakily migrate to the front. Take a number and advise others to do the same. you will enjoy the peace!

– If you are entitled to do so, use the public health system, but don’t abuse it. Like most national health systems, it is by no means perfect, but it is better than nothing. Accept that there is a waiting list for certain types of treatment, but know that if it were an emergency, you would get the help you need.

Enjoy the beauty around you. Get out of the house as much as possible. Try new things. Learn to snowboard or ski. Make a list of the places you want to see and start crossing them off. Even if it is only at the rate of one place a year, you will be living your dream. Take pictures and tell friends about the journey.

Keep a journal. I have a number of journals, and when I look back, I can see how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown. My journals remind me of the places I’ve been, the beauty I’ve seen and the people I’ve met along the way. Don’t be afraid to write down your sad moments too. Reading them later helps you realize how blessed you have been and how your sadness has been lifted. Talking of sadness, most people battle with depression of some form when making a move such as this. Initially, you feel lost and isolated. All your points of reference have disappeared. It’s okay. Ride it out as much as you can, but don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it. In the first years after our move, I often found myself “recognising” distant friends with a leap of the heart followed by the sinking realisation that this person wasn’t the friend who was far away back home. It happened less and less as time went by and now, twelve years later, it hardly ever happens.

Nowadays, I’m far more likely to hear my name called when I’m out and about, to be greeted with kisses and to be invited to stop for coffee in a bar. And when it happens, I’m always a little surprised and thrilled. And I think to myself, “This is my life. I really have made a new life here.” And you can too!

You’ve done the preparation. you’ve done the maths. Now go out and start living your dream!

Revised Dec 2014