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Living in Italy: Day One Things to Know

Living in Italy: Day One Things to Know

A typical Italian refrigerator with things on top of it.

Benvenuti!

Disclaimer: I talk more people out of moving to Italy than into it. It’s important to understand that sì, life is beautiful, but it isn’t a postcard…shit gets really real sometimes. If you come here expecting una passeggiata nel parco, you won’t be prepared to climb Everest, which is a more accurate analogy. I don’t know a single expat or immigrant who hasn’t epically lost their shit at least three times, so preparation is essential to dusting yourself off and getting back on your bike. Thanks to my friend Misty, I at least felt like I knew what I was getting into, though moving to a new country three months before a global pandemic shut down the world wasn’t something I was prepared for.

Girl in Florence was helpful in a different way. Bear in mind that most readers of “expat” blogs are not Italian (because why would they be?) and a lot of Italians have a love-hate relationship with blogs written by non-natives. Honestly, I can’t blame them…Italy has a lot of things you have to earn to see that are NOT for tourists. Once you manage to become an insider, you’ll be privy to things and places not meant for the uninitiated or tourists, so you need to be willing to honor that, or you’ll get the boot. (No pun intended.)

COFFEE

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 most places, because it’s not Starbucks. (There is one in Milan, but I have strong feelings about this.) 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 has had to break its rule against coffee “to go” by dispensing espresso in Dixie cups during several months of  “zona rossa/arancione” lockdown, so don’t be that post-pandemic asshole who asks for an “latte to go.” Latte is milk, and you will deserve any shit you get from the bartender. (Which is what baristas are called in Italy, btw.) Considering that it’s actually espresso, it can be a religious experience. 

ITALIAN

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 tend to be the worst about it, and I’ve witnessed some appalling interactions, like the man who was refusing to leave his (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.) 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 the historic center of Florence post-move. 18 months later, I’m on Level 6, round three, because 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 love all three of my Italian teachers (ciao, Benedetta, Rita, and Simonetta!) and the people of my street (neighbors, shop owners, and even my plumber, Piero) have taught me even more outside of class, always with patience (“piano, piano” = slowly, slowly…a phrase you will also hear), respect, and frequently, humor. Pre- pandemic, I realized I was staring at people’s mouths, as if lip-reading was going to help me, but turns out, it actually does…and Italians know this.

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 = “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 Italy has required the use of gloves when buying fruits and veggies in a grocery store* since 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 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. 

BAGGING GROCERIES

You bag your own, always. Unless you’re injured or disabled…I cut my index finger to the bone with a bread knife – evidently an Italian rite of passage – and even after the stitches were removed, it didn’t work right for weeks, so cashiers were gracious about helping me. You may feel pressured the first few times since Italians who’ve been doing it since they were preschoolers will be waiting in line behind you, so 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.

BICYCLES

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 pressured 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 keep riding. The travertine slabs will jiggle the hell out of you, your brain, and anything you have in your basket, so hold on. 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.

RECEIPTS

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.

FARMACIAS

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.

DOGS

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:

Also thanks to my friend Misty, I was legitimately fairly prepared for the various things that can go sideways when you move to Italy, but the shipping thing pushed me to my breaking point a couple of times, so here’s the deal: don’t believe everything you read on the internet, even on official government websites sometimes. Theoretically, you’re supposed to be able to ship a reasonable amount of furniture and household goods to yourself within six months after you move to Italy and not have to pay import or customs taxes on it. 

In reality, sending your stuff to Italy is expensive on the US 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 things like my shoes, outerwear, books, ski boots, backpacking gear, photos, and a few special décor and kitchen 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. Add in $500 or so for baggage fees when I flew here, and we’re talking $2,328.00, which is why I only kept things that would be impossible to replace and/or I loved. I knew it would be easier and more cost-efficient to just buy the rest after I moved. The money wasn’t actually the challenge for me, it was getting my things out of customs that was like pulling teeth. I finally hired someone to help me after it sat there for over two months and I got nowhere trying to call them.

THINGS ITALY HAS

Okay, so moving onto the fun part of things (for giggles and so I can write the second half of this), 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. There are some things I figured out the hard (or embarrassing) way because for all of my research, time, and reconnaissance trips, it’s simply not possible to investigate everything before a big move. So, let’s begin with what Italy DOES have:

CASH

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

The street address numbering can frustrate newcomers, so to save you from a meltdown in advance, there are TWO numbering systems that work independently: 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). 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 11 black (or blue), but 12R could be three or more blocks away from 11R. 

With both red and black/blue, 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

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). 

ZANZARE

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 apartment last September 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 #1: peroxide instantly removes blood from matte white paint.) 

To keep them away, I now use “Vape” (no relation to “vaping”), which is a liquid repellent that works via an electrical outlet diffuser like the essential oil kind. It’s not even remotely “bio” but it works. (Refills only last 30 days though, and even less when it’s hot outside, so be vigilant about checking them!) Last, but far from least, if you do get bitten, pro tip #2: 2% promethazine cream. The farmacista I consulted after my rookie mistake sold me “Reactifargan” – a version made by J&J that works better than everything else I’ve ever used in my years of backpacking and traveling. (It’s 13€ for a small tube, so you may want to ask if they have a generic version available.)

EU SIM CARDS

Cell plans work differently in Italy, so if you’re planning to keep using your US phone (most newbies do for a while), a renewable TIM, Vodafone, Wind, etc. SIM card that lets you call, browse, and message in Europe for as low as €15 a month is vital to communicating and almost more importantly, navigating with it. You’ll need to see if your phone is unlocked first and call your service provider for a code to unlock it if it’s not. If you’re not tech-savvy, no problem, because the cellular store staff is, so if you ask them nicely, they’ll help you figure it out. 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 service provider’s app or online with a US credit card (not debit). A European bank like N26 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 a European phone in installments. Alternatively, you can drop cash for the new phone (€ 800+ for an iPhone), then pay your bill in the ways I just mentioned. Confused? Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out (because you’ll have to).

FYI, there’s also a Tourist plan that’s €20 for 30 days and includes 15 GB of 4G internet, 200 minutes of worldwide calling, and unlimited messaging via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Skype, Imo, Telegram, Snapchat, and WeChat.) Which reminds me, if you don’t use WhatsApp yet, start, because texting works differently in Europe…app messaging is free, but SMS texts are not (they cost $0.07 to $0.11 per text, which adds up).

NIPPLES

We all know breasts have nipples, yet in the US, they’re absent on mannequins, taboo in advertising, and a target of humor or shaming in a lot of cases. I used to hate having to think about whether I was “nipping out” at the office or buy padded bras to keep them from showing. Both scenarios are fucking ridiculous. Thankfully, in Italy, and Europe in general, that’s not the case. Nipples exist. Don’t be creepy and gawk.

NARROW SIDEWALKS

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.

FRIENDS

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. I don’t care how independent you are, you cannot do it all yourself, because that’s not how Italy works. So, how do you meet people in a place you don’t live yet? Virtually, of course. The obvious platform is social media, but as a word of caution, I avoid “Italy” Facebook groups since even the ones supposedly for those already living in Italy rarely reflect that in their membership. Sifting through all the “blind leading the blind” posts is a waste of time and there’s a ton of weirdness and misinformation in them. Do not take anything you read as gospel…always fact-check!!

Besides my Italian work colleagues, in my Italian classes, and from 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. If you’re serious about meeting people, it’s worth the 119 € 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, and having connections that you trust before you get here is hugely helpful, 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).

AMERICAN JENNY

“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 shit 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

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):

Tipping
Returns
Elevators
Clothes dryers
Dishwashers
Square footage
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’s 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.

Finding a Doctor or Psychotherapist

Ask the farmacista
Guardia Medica

WORKING IN ITALY

I’ve been on both sides of this teeter-totter, and the hard truth is that neither is easy, and both require patience (and balls) of steel. I already worked remotely as a contract content manager/writer when I took a calculated leap on moving to Florence from Seattle in November 2019 after three years of coming in second for Italian jobs (to someone who was already here). 

I had already been working 90% remotely through contract assignments with two big Seattle agencies before deciding to move to Italy, and as long as I met my deadlines, no one cared where I lived or what time zone I was in. I had also been interviewing with Italian companies via Skype, which is how I connected with my first Italian employer…a company that didn’t hire me was our client.

What I’ve seen change since first making the leap to Florence in November 2019 is more US companies requiring employees to work offsite (remotely) but be available for onsite meetings with no specified intervals AND live in the metro area…this last part wasn’t common either. It reminds me of dating someone who wants the benefits of a commitment without making one, yet still expects you to be available for booty calls.

But I digress…I was really hoping more employers would realize that untethering people makes the world their talent pool as things “normalized” but that still seems iffy. As for American firms hiring Americans living abroad for jobs abroad, they’d have to be a separate entity to do business in Italy, so technically, you’d still be an Italian employee if you’re living here and they hire you, and you’d still need a work visa.

One path to living here before you find a job is a study visa. It actually allows you to work up to 20 hours per week for an Italian company, and it can be converted once you receive a job offer. You still have to have the means to support yourself while you’re looking, which is why I say there’s no one clear answer and no one can pave the path for you…everyone has different circumstances, skillsets, and fear levels. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes.

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