Living in Italy: Essential Things to Know
Disclaimer: I talk more people out of moving to Italy than into it. Not because I’m gatekeeping, but because I think it’s important to understand that sì, Italian life is beautiful, but it isn’t a postcard. If you come here expecting una passeggiata nel parco (a walk in the park), you won’t be primed to climb Everest, which is more on par with reality. I don’t know a single expat or immigrant who hasn’t lost their shit at least twice, so preparation is mission-essential. Thanks to my friend Misty, I felt like I at least sort of knew what I was really getting myself into. (“Sort of” = a global pandemic that shut down the world wasn’t on the list.)
Girl in Florence was helpful in a different way, though I discovered that a lot of Italians have a love-hate relationship with expat blogs. Honestly, I can’t blame them…Italy has a lot of places not intended for the uninitiated or tourists, as well as experiences you have to earn and/or be invited to by an Italian. Getting from Point A (newcomer) to Point B (one of the cool kids) takes patience and a vetting process intended to ensure you’ll honor the inside knowledge you’re made privy to. If you don’t, you’ll get the boot. (No pun intended.)
On that note, andiamo to things you need to know!
Coffee is Italy’s second religion, so I’m being serious when I say never order a cappuccino after 12 noon. Cappuccinos are breakfast food, so consuming one after lunch is sacrilege (too much dairy). Coffee is typically consumed while standing at the bar, not sitting at a table, which costs extra in some places. Back to cappuccinos, if you’d rather go without coffee than drink it black, the macchiato is a good compromise, and you can drink it any time. Except after dinner…
One of the biggest tragedies of COVID besides the 4 million deaths is that Italy had to break its self-imposed rule against coffee “to go” by dispensing espresso in Dixie cups during “zona rossa” lockdown. So, while it’s less frowned upon than before, you still don’t want to be that post-pandemic asshole who asks for an “latte to go.” One, latte is milk, and two, you will deserve any shit you get from the bartender (what baristas are called in Italy).
Speak it, for fuck’s sake, even if you do so badly…the language barrier is real on both sides.
Americans aren’t the only elitists who assume everyone speaks English in Italy (spoiler alert: they don’t) or believe that they should, but y’all do tend to be the worst offenders. And I’ve witnessed some appalling interactions, like the man who refused to leave his (heavy, old-school, metal) hotel key with the front desk (standard practice), lost his temper when he thought the clerk didn’t understand him, and said rude things to his wife about the guy who was standing right in front of him. As if he wasn’t there. I delighted in watching his face when the manager in the adjacent office responded in English that he understood what he said, but didn’t understand why he would talk about someone that way or want to lug a 2 lb key around Florence with him, and that perhaps alternate accommodations would be best?
But I digress…if you don’t already speak Italian (everyone who didn’t have Italian parents or grandparents), I strongly advise doing whatever it takes to become 80% fluent starting NOW. (100% comes with time and immersion, or so I hear.) Pre-move, I used Rosetta Stone + Duolingo and watched Italian movies/listened to Italian music and enrolled in formal Italian classes at Centro Internazionale Studenti Giorgio La Pira language school in Florence post-move.
I made it to Level 6, round three, but i pronomi diretti, combinati e indiretti + passato prossimo/imperfetto = cerebral collapse. (Side note Don’t ask me for “the best free resources” because you get what you pay for, and if you’re unwilling to spend money on an app or classes, you’re probably not committed enough to cut it in Italy.)
FYI, it’s normal to feel frustrated and/or like a complete idiot for the first months. I’ve loved all of my Italian teachers and the people of my street (neighbors, shop owners, and my plumber, Piero) have taught me even more outside of class, always with patience and frequently with humor. (“Piano, piano” means slowly, slowly…a phrase you’re likely to hear when you’re fumbling for words.)
Just for fun, here are a few starter phrases:
Come stai? = “How are you?” or alternatively, “Come andata?” = “How’s it going?”
Allora = so, then, okay (“Allora, che prossima?” = “So, what next?” or as a filler word)
Dai! = “Come on!” (“Oblige me!”)
Che? = “What?” (Alternatively, there’s “Come?” – pronounced “co-may”)
Boh = “I don’t know,” or “Who knows?”
Basta! = “Enough!” (“Stop!”)
Figurati (or niente, or nulla0 = “It’s nothing.” (“Don’t worry about it.”)
Tranquilla, cosa succede = “It’s okay, it happens.”
A posto? = “All finished?” (e.g., a waiter asking if he can take your plate.)
Magari = “If only!” (“I wish!”)
Che palle! = “What balls!” (“The nerve!”)
Meno male! = “Thank God!
Che shifo! = “Disgusting!”
PRODUCE AND BREAD
Do not (!) touch produce with your hands unless it’s in a pre-sealed package with a UPC code on it. Italy required the use of gloves when buying fruits and veggies in a grocery store* long before COVID, so there are disposable ones you have to use to place produce in bio bags (usually right next to the gloves). Then you place the bag on the scale, select the bin number, and put the sticker the machine prints on the bag, and tie the top closed.
*In general, you don’t touch them at all when shopping at outdoor markets. You can point, but the vendors will usually pick it out, weigh it, and package it for you. The process is the same for bread, but it’s typically in enclosed bins that you have to reach into. Again, if it’s in a pre-sealed bag with a UPC code on it, you can just pick it up and put it in your basket.
You bag your own, always, AND use your own bags…the bio ones are strong, but tend to tear. That said, if you’re injured or disabled, the cashiers will probably be gracious about helping you. I cut my index finger to the bone with a bread knife a couple years ago (evidently an Italian rite of passage) and even after the stitches were removed, it didn’t work right for weeks, so I was relieved and grateful they were so nice about it.
If you’ve never bagged your own stuff before, you may feel pressured the first few times by the long line of Italians (who’ve been doing it since they were preschoolers) behind you. The trick is to start bagging while the cashier is still ringing. Pro-tip: Italians don’t shop like Americans and load up on Costco-sized packages of anything, so embrace the less is more/fresh is better mindset.
Helmets aren’t a thing when riding your bike in the city (mountain biking and racing are a different story), and the best skill you can develop is having balls the size of church bells. Mostly because there will be times you’ll need to ride into oncoming traffic. Which is generally acceptable on most two-lane streets, but you will need to pull over to the side to let cars and vans pass. (Scooters will usually have room to share the street).
Obviously, riding with traffic is preferable, and as terrified as you may feel when there are vehicles and scooters behind you, the onus is on them to go around you when there’s a wide enough section, so don’t dilly-dally, but stay focused on where you’re going and keep riding. The travertine slabs will jiggle the hell out of you, your brain, and anything you have in your basket, so a firm grip and a relaxed body are key. If there’s no room in the bike racks, most poles, building grates, etc. are fair game as long as you’re not blocking a door or driveway.
You will get at least one receipt for everything you do; two if you pay with a card. Keep them until you get home, or at least 25 meters from the place of purchase. Why? Because the law requiring you to do this is somewhat archaic, but the Guardia Finanze isn’t, and it’s their job to make sure shop and restaurant owners pay taxes.
Italy isn’t Mexico…you’re going to need a prescription for the good stuff, which means you’ll need to legitimately see a doctor. I can’t tell you how to get yourself set up within the Italian healthcare system since I haven’t done it myself yet, but there are numerous private-pay options such as the clinic two doors down from Gucci in the historic center of Florence. In addition to advising you on OTC medications, any farmacista will likely be able to give you the name of a doctor. You’ll probably have to pay him or her in cash (40€ is typical) for the visit, but the good news is that most medications are vastly less expensive in Italy than in the US.
Florence is the most dog-friendly city ever, even more so than Seattle, and they’re allowed everywhere, including grocery stores and ristorantes. You’ll see occasional land mines, but most owners are vigilant about picking up their dog’s poo. Today I watched a guy wipe his dog’s butt on the steps of San Lorenzo as I was eating dinner across from it. That was a little over the top, but my point is, dogs.
SHIPPING/SENDING STUFF TO ITALY:
I was prepared for much of what can go sideways when you move to Italy, but the shit show of being sent packages and/or boxes pushed me to my breaking point a couple of times. So, here’s the deal: don’t believe everything you read on the internet, including official government websites. Theoretically, you’re allowed to ship a reasonable amount of household goods (and furniture if you’re so inclined) to yourself within six months after you move to Italy and not have to pay import or customs taxes on it.
But that’s if you’re officially a resident, which your permesso di soggiorno (permit to stay) does NOT make you, but which you do need in order to declare residency in the comune (city) you live in. IF you get it before you’re here for six months, maybe you stand a 0.1% chance of being exempt. In reality, sending your stuff to Italy is expensive on the USA (or any non-EU country) end, and you absolutely may or may not have to pay customs tax on it. (And on gifts people send you, which are also supposed to be exempt).
I opted to sell all of my furniture and ship eleven 18”X14”X12” boxes of my shoes, outerwear, books, ski boots, backpacking gear, photos, and a few special household items. They averaged $135 per box through Parcel Monkey ($1,485.00), then 8/11 cost another €36 (288€ = $343) to collect on the Italian side.
Plus the $500ish I paid in baggage fees when I flew here, we’re talking $2,328.00. Which is why I only kept things that would be impossible to replace and/or that I loved. I knew it would be easier and more cost-efficient to just buy the rest after I moved. The money wasn’t the challenge for me, it was getting my things out of customs. (Imagine desperately trying to pull teeth from a slow-moving glacier.) I finally got them when I hired my friend Tanya at Lucca Connections to help me after making zero progress on my own for over two months. (10/10 recommend contacting her if you get stuck or lost…if she can’t help you, she will know who can.)
THINGS ITALY HAS
Moving on to the fun part of things (for giggles and so I can write the second half of this article), let’s say you’ve decided to go for it, have your visa and plane ticket in hand, and your departure date is fast-approaching. I figured out some things the hard (or embarrassing) way because for all of my research, time, and reconnaissance trips, it’s simply not possible to investigate everything beforehand. So, let’s begin with what Italy DOES have:
All merchants, ristorantes, and even outdoor market vendors are required to give you a receipt, but they are NOT required to accept card payments, and a lot of them don’t. Having cash is your responsibility, not their problem, so don’t expect them to care or make exceptions…make a habit of carrying, say, 50€ (and 1€ coins for using public toilets…if you’re new to peeing in Italy, you’ll want to read this article).
DUAL ADDRESS NUMBERING SYSTEMS IN FLORENCE
To save you from a meltdown in advance, Florence has TWO address numbering systems that work independently of each other: BLACK/BLUE numbers = residential, and RED numbers = businesses.
So, when you see an address like “Via dei Palchetti, 6R” the “R” indicates rosso (red), which means it’s a business. The city started using integrated black numbering for new construction in 2016, but the process of replacing the existing red numbers is voluntary (translation: slow to never). In older sections of the city, there can be two number “11” buildings on the same street, and 12 black/blue is probably next or at least near to 14 black/blue), but 12R could be three or more blocks away from 14R.
With both systems, even numbers are on the right, odd ones are on the left, and the sequences all begin at the river Arno. If the street/square is parallel to it, the numbers increase in the direction the water flows, and if it’s perpendicular, the numbers start at the bank and increase heading away from it. (Just remember the black/blue vs. red part and you’ll be fine.)
Taxis are primarily run by two companies in Firenze: It Taxi (055 4390) and Taxi 4242 (055 4242), both of whom can be found at any of the city’s taxi stands or via their apps – it Taxi and appTaxi, respectively – in addition to being available on WhatsApp, Messenger, or via SMS. The one way you’re not allowed to summon them is by hailing them in the street (sorry, New Yorkers).
Except for the month of January, mosquitos are the bane of gli italiani e stranieri alike…and they’re (literally) out for blood. I fell asleep with the window open my first night in my current apartment (an epic rookie mistake) and woke up to THIRTY-SEVEN bites on my arms, legs, and face. I itched so much I twitched. I killed one of the little fuckers who was so engorged with O+ it couldn’t move when I tested my new “Tutto 99 Cent” store guitar fly swatter. (Pro tip: peroxide instantly removes blood from matte white paint.)
I now use “Vape” (no relation to vaping), which is a liquid repellent that works via an electrical outlet diffuser. It’s not bio/green but it works. And if you do get bitten, 2% promethazine cream from your farmacista will be your new best friend. There are generic versions, but I use J&J’s Reactifargan since it works better than everything else I ever tried in all my years of backpacking and traveling combined.
EU SIM CARDS + WHATSAPP
Cell plans work differently in Europe, so if you’re planning to keep using your American phone for a while (common practice) and it’s unlocked, a renewable TIM, Vodafone, or WindTre SIM card lets you call and browse in Europe and message via WhatsApp* (or Messenger, iMessage, Skype, Telegram, Snapchat, and WeChat) worldwide for €15 or so a month. Besides communicating, you’ll be able to navigate accurately with it...something your American phone will SUCK at doing.
If you don’t know whether your phone is unlocked, the cellular store staff can probably help you figure it out if you ask them nicely. If it’s locked and you own it outright, call your US service provider for a code to unlock it. The time that it takes beats paying Verizon or T-Mobile $500 a month for a handful of texts and two international phone calls any day.
When it comes to paying your monthly Italian cell phone bill, besides paying in cash at a store, you can also pay it via the provider’s app or online with a US credit card (not debit). A European bank like Wise will let you open an account online and assign you an Italian IBAN number, but automatic monthly billing requires an actual Italian debit or credit card, as does buying an Italian iPhone (or Android) in installments. If you’re confused, don’t worry…you’ll figure it out, because you’ll have to.
*WhatsApp is how Europe communicates, even businesses, doctors, lawyers, schools, etc. so if you’re not already using it, download it as soon as you finish reading this article.
We all know breasts have nipples, because duh, yet in the USA, they’re absent on mannequins, taboo in advertising. Not only that, but “nipping out” at the office or anywhere in public is so frowned upon that American women buy padded bras to keep them from showing. Both scenarios are fucking ridiculous. Thankfully, in Italy, and Europe in general, nipple shaming doesn’t exist. Nipples do though, so giggle if you must, but don’t be creepy and gawk.
Sidewalks in the older parts of Florence are barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, so most the time, we all just walk in the street. But when car and motorini (scooter) traffic is steady, I use a “one foot tap” technique for maneuvering around someone where I move to the left edge of the sidewalk, step off onto the street with my left foot only for one step as I pass them, and then step back onto the sidewalk. I can be rhythm challenged (Zumba is a hell no), so if it works for me, anyone mobile with two feet can do it or a variation thereof.
If you don’t know a soul in Italy yet, pitter patter! It’s (technically) possible to physically get yourself here without having friends on the ground but staying is a different story. No matter how independent you are, you cannot do it all yourself. That’s not how Italy works. So, how do you meet people? Social media is an obvious way, but as a word of caution, I avoid “Italy” Facebook groups since even the ones supposedly for those already living here rarely reflect that in their membership. Sifting through all the “blind leading the blind” posts by people who want you to do the work for them is a waste of time and there’s a ton of weirdness and misinformation in them.
Besides work colleagues, Italian classes, and getting to know restaurant/shop owners and staff, the best way I’ve made friends with Italians (plus Brits, Australians, Germans, Croatians, Ukrainians, etc.) has been through InterNations. Besides the main group’s monthly events, there are sub-groups based on interests, some of which meet weekly. It’s worth the 95 € annual fee to become an “Albatross” member, especially if you’re an introvert like me and have to force yourself out of your comfort zone.
Assimilating into Italian culture and getting to know your neighbors/neighborhood beyond the surface level requires gaining trust, which takes time, especially if your Italian fluency is iffy in complex situations. Sometimes only an Italian can help you navigate something or show you how to close 6-layer windows (not kidding).
PERSONAS TO AVOID IF YOU ENCOUNTER THEM
“American Jenny” is entitled, bitter, judgmental, and embodies the worst of all expat traits and behaves accordingly, though frequently in a passive-aggressive manner. She may seek you out initially because you’re new and not burned out on her BS yet, but American Jenny is generally someone who is best avoided, especially if she feels threatened or upstaged by you when there are others around.
Italian Tony is “that guy” and typically works in a ristorante, leather shop, or other public-facing business. He’s the stereotypical suave Italian who knows what to say to women, especially solo female tourists, who tend to eat that shit up. If you just want a one-night stand with a local, then Tony is your guy, but be safe and know that’s all it is to him unless he thinks you’re wealthy. In that case, he may charm you for a while, then put the push on for you to give or loan him money. DO NOT DO THIS and remember, if your gut signals bullshit, it probably is.
THINGS ITALY DOES NOT HAVE (IN ABUNDANCE OR AT ALL):
Dawn dish soap
RENTING AN APARTMENT IN ITALY
Renting an apartment is a whole different endeavor here. For one, potential owners and/or leasing agents expect to meet you in person…this is Italy, and face-to-face is how business is done. And speaking of, when leasing long-term USE AN AGENT!! (That’s the link to Giuseppe Ferrara, my agent in Florence, who I’d recommend for a bunch of reasons, the top one being that he’s legitimate and good at what he does – he doesn’t speak English though.)
For two, there are four types of rental contracts that will not be in English. For three, most apartments are hundreds of years old and rented furnished (but probably not with a clothes dryer…they’re not common here) so what you see in photos is what you get, including mismatched furniture, dishes, and wall decor. (It is common for a listing to have five photos of the same flower vase and sift through a hundred apartments before you find one.) I was even gifted a llama onesie by my Italian landlady, whom I adore. (She thought it was a blanket when she bought it and it was beyond awesome.)
A two-month deposit and agent’s fee equal to one month is normal, as is adding estimated utilities to the rent, but a landlord who asks you to pay in cash probably isn’t paying taxes on it, which means your contract probably isn’t registered with the Agenzia delle Entrate (Italian Revenue Agency), which means you’re not actually a resident.
WORKING IN ITALY
I worked remotely for a US company pre-pandemic, which was how I was able to take a calculated leap on moving to Florence after three years of coming in second for Italian jobs to someone who was already here. Then I worked for an Italian company for 20% of my American salary for 13 months. Going back to working for American companies remotely required having to spend time on US soil to comply with IRS location requirements, which was a change brought about by the pandemic. So, *newsflash*: “working remotely” does NOT necessarily allow you to work from anywhere. It all depends on the company, the state it’s located in, and the state you (at least theoretically) perform the work in. The hard truth is that neither end of the teeter totter is easy or simple, because taxes and work visas, which I won’t go into in this article.
So, with the veritable firehose of info I’ve just imparted upon you, I’ll end this here, but definitely peruse my other articles if you want more and/or follow me on Instagram for occasionally useful and frequently comedic glimpses into my world.