So, You Want to Move to Italy …
Actually, you probably don’t, and here’s why.
I mean that sincerely, not in a “wink, wink” kind of way. It’s not that Italy’s not stunning or that moving to Italy isn’t glorious – it absolutely is. But every time someone tells me how envious, impressed, etc. they are that I permanently moved to Italy from the US by myself or comments on how I’m “living the dream,” I know they mean well, but have no idea what it’s like to actually LIVE in Italy. “Under the Tuscan Sun” belies reality and omits a lot of craptastic but very important things you really need to know before considering moving here.
Depending on the day (sometimes the hour), Italian life ranges from blissful to amusing to isolating to areyoufuckingserious? When you live here for reals, you have to take it all. That can be sit-down-on-your-Italian-tile-floor-and-cry hard for immigrants and expats. Italians can be pushed to the limit too, though they’re typically better equipped to handle it than non-natives since they grew up here. In fact, alarming numbers of young people have exited the country in the last decade, which has left Italy with a “brain drain” that’s actually somewhat of a crisis.
Who I Am
You may be wondering who am I to tell you whether you should move to Italy or not. The answer: someone who’s done—and is doing—it. Albeit not how I envisioned or as smoothly as I would have preferred, which is partially why I’m writing this. For me, it took three years from deciding to move to Florence to doing it. The story literally (pun intended) ended up being a not-yet-published bestseller called “Eight Couches to Italy” that’s the pragmatic antithesis to the above. (Don’t get me started on “Eat, Pray, Love.”)
Everything I did was focused on Missione: Italia. It felt like it took forever to get here. I’ve since learned that’s a remarkably short timeframe. I have yet to meet anyone who’s done it in less time, but it’s theoretically possible. Looking back at how each agonizing delay, setback, or failure was essential to thriving as an Italiana (or at least not losing my shit), I don’t think I’d want to expedite the character-building process. It’s required to survive la dolce vita.
That said, if you want the truth about moving to Italy, along with some partial answers on what to realistically expect if you do, read on, i miei amici. Then decide for yourselves whether you’re crazy and determined enough to do it. (It takes both, along with mental fortitude and saintly patience.) Andiamo!
Maybe You Just Want to Be on Permanent Holiday
In reality, a lot of (most?) people who dream about moving to Italy and think they want to live here really just want to be on vacation in Italy full-time. Because buongiorno, between the art, food, wine, music, architecture, culture, history, beaches, mountains, hospitality, and attitude toward life, who wouldn’t? All that stuff is part of living in Italy, but day-to-day Italian life isn’t tourist life. It’s…life. In a different language that you probably aren’t fluent in yet.
Italian life is pretty cool when you’re committed to living as an Italian among actual Italians. But if you expect to “live the dream” [insert eyeroll] without having to learn Italian, give up some of your native habits, and forgo any consistent semblance of a comfort zone your first year, then Simon says, “freeze.” If you’re not so deeply compelled in the depths of your soul that you’re willing to potentially give up everything you are, have, know, and love to move here, lemme save you a lot of angst and money with one word: DON’T. Plan an extended Italian holiday instead (you can stay here up to 90 days on a tourist visa).
Spoiler Alert: La Dolce Vita is a Lie
La dolce vita pushes 98% of newbies to their limits at least once, usually two or three times. And it will break you if you’re not all-in or sufficiently prepared for the snags or infamous questura experience. (Pro tip: take snacks and water). Then you’ll have to cry-splain yourself to an Italian psychologist* and/or pull it together enough to fly home (if you still have one elsewhere) to regroup without causing an international incident. Best to avoid that, sì? (Sì.)
*You may have to do this anyway, and it’s 100% okay. Asking for help when you need it is essential to your mental and physical health. Moving to Italy or any other new country is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Smartassery aside, most Italian cities and larger towns have English-speaking psychotherapists and doctors. And options exist for virtual visits, though you should verify the credentials of anyone in private practice (i.e., not part of the Italian national health system).
Moving to Italy 101: A Brief Overview
If you really think you want to live here, the process begins with selecting a visa doorway. But after walking through it, whether you do it solo or hire an immigration lawyer, no two experiences are identical. You can find guides like this one written by my friend Evelyn, who does live in Italy and knows her stuff, but generic step-by-step instructions are impossible Half the fun is writing your own story as you go! (Okay, some days, you’ll use a different “F” word to describe it, but still.)
There are also “moving to Italy” coaches who can be hugely helpful, but definitely check their credentials and ask to see independent reviews. Fact-checking what anyone tells you is a solid habit to develop because the first thing most of us who’ve moved and live here will tell you is that vagueness abounds. Even immigration attorneys and government officials are misinformed on occasion.
For the record, there are five common ways to move to Italy. Plus four less common ones, not including being an asylum-seeker, refugee, or other special situations. If you can’t figure out the basics without being spoon-fed each step, then you’re not ready. If deciphering a website like the Ministero degli Affari Esteri overwhelms you, how will you navigate in-country challenges? Because it’s a mathematical certainty you’ll have them.
What NOT to Do When Moving to Italy
I saw a “How to Move to Italy” TikTok video the other day, and nearly peed myself laughing when the girl who created it said, “There are three ways to move to Italy, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know – I just did it last week!” She hasn’t even shaken off the jet lag yet, never mind unpacked or submitted her permesso application. Please don’t take advice from people like that, no matter how many followers or “likes” they have…if you make a misstep in your immigration process, it can be a nightmare to fix.
Italians and Bureaucracy
Italians and stranieri (foreigners) alike come in various physical configurations, personalities, and degrees of niceness/assholery. It still rains for days on end sometimes (but holy shitaly, are the thunderstorms impressive). We still work, run mundane errands, pay rent, wait in line at the Ufficio Postale (for. days.), and file taxes.
Italy is the birthplace of Armani, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Da Vinci, Dante, Fellini, Ferrari, Fibonacci, Galileo, Marco Polo, the Medicis, Michelangelo, Montessori, Stradivarius, Vespa, Versace, and more noteworthy Italians than I can list here, but it’s a country, not a magic kingdom (that would be Disneyland), so you gotta work for your fairytale here.
Which brings me to the misperception that Italians don’t work hard. They do. Frequently for half or less of the average American salary. #FunFact: the first line of the Costituzione della Repubblica Italiana is: “L’Italia è una Repubblica democratica, fondata sul lavoro.” (“Italy is a democratic Republic founded on labor.”) There are perks that offset the pay, but four weeks of vacation is pointless if you can’t afford to go anywhere.
Do Italians have a better attitude about those things than a lot of countries? Yes. Does that make it easier to not implode when a package your family sent gets stuck in customs for months? No. And you might have to pay import tax on your dirty Converse that are clearly your “personal belongings.” (A category that’s supposed to be exempt.) But no one will give a fuck, and frankly, neither will you. (You’ll just be happy to be reunited with them.)
Simple things can take twice the energy. Translating (pro tip: DeepL, not Google) and navigating systems that only intuitively make sense to Italians gets exhausting. You won’t be treated “special” like a tourist. You may even encounter people who overtly resent you. A Trenitalia employee refuse to sell me food on a long trip, but the Italian couple next to me bought wine and snacks from her twice. Thankfully, this is very uncommon.
You may think you’ll be exempt from the bureaucracy (aw, aren’t you cute?), but you won’t. Just try not to take it personally…it’s a vetting process that’s part of moving to Italy. And mad props to Frances Mayes, but Audrey Wells morphed her story into a fairytale* that would sell better than one about tapping your foot on the concrete floor of the questura for four hours. (As you watch immigrant toddlers run back and forth while listening to the “ding” of numbers that are still 12 away from yours at 4:45.)
*Confession: UTTS is one of my favorite movies. I love Diane Lane, and it’s about manifesting as much as it is Italy. I still have little glass ladybugs to remind me to believe in wishes and let the universe is work its magic.)
Immigrants, Expats, and Jealousy, Oh My!
One observation I’ve made is that people who take the leap on moving to Italy tend to land in one of four groups:
- Lifers who succeed in sticking it out, rolling with what Italy throws at them, embracing and integrating into Italian culture, learning the language, and living happily ever after(ish).
- Ricocheters who attempt to do the above but return to their home country within a year, two at the most, for a variety of existential and circumstantial reasons.
- “Expats” who manage to deal with Italy’s shit and stay but don’t really learn the language, mainly socialize with their compatriots, and tend to disrespect Italian culture, though not always intentionally.
- Wobblers who are getting their bearings or slogging through the inadvertent baggage they brought with them, most of whom migrate into one of the above groups, but immigration purgatory can take a while to escape for some.
For the record, I think the word “expat” is elitist and racist, so I don’t consider myself one. I may have been born American, and caucasian at that, but I’m an immigrant. Just like all the other souls I’ve spent a lot of hours standing in line with at the questura.
Friends and Jealousy
Statistically, your pre-move friends won’t all still be part of your circle after a year. The distance makes staying connected, even with your besties and family, challenging. The longer you’re here, the less you’ll have in common with them. (But you’ll be making cool new Italian friends!)
Also, people sometimes get weird when they see someone doing something they want to do but don’t believe they can. Consciously or not, some may even try to sabatoge you. It’s a bummer. But the cool thing is, you’ll find out who your real friends are. And you’ll be making new Italian ones along the way. (You will absolutely need support, by the way. If you’re the fiercely independent type like me, that can be a hard pill to swallow.)
Moving to Italy Readiness Questions
You have visited Italy, right? If your answer is no, start there, because are you crazy?? Italy has a way of chewing up and spitting out the unprepared like stale ciabatta. Know what you’re getting into firsthand and do your research.
Do you speak Italian? If not (everyone who didn’t have Italian parents or grandparents), start learning NOW. True fluency comes with time and immersion. Pre-move, I used Rosetta Stone and Duolingo, watched Italian movies, and listened to Italian music. Post-move, I kept doing all of that, plus enrolled in formal Italian classes, and made Italians who spoke English speak to me in Italian (except for work…different ballgame). I also started sleeping with Italian tutorials playing. I can finally tell stories and understand what people are saying around me. Learning a second language is hard. Moving to Italy without a fundamental understanding of Italian virtually guarantees a rough beginning. Don’t do that to yourself or Italy.
Do you have any unresolved trauma or other issues? If yes, DEAL WITH THAT FIRST (all the way), before you move to a foreign country. For one, it’s never a wise state of mind to make big life decisions from. But also, you’ve got to be able to self-stabilize and have a relatively firm knowledge of who you are before you move to Italy or it will hand your issues to you on a Carrara marble slab. “Baggage” is the main reason people end up in the Wobblers group. Baggage also creates bitter expats, which Italy does not need more of.
Do you have funds for a plane ticket, visa/permesso fees, first/last/deposit, agent commission, shipping*, insurance, and six months of living expenses? If not, hold off until you do if possible. The cost of living is lower than most of the US, but shit happens. So do cashflow gaps. It can be challenging and take days to transfer money from a US account to an EU one.
*Moving to Italy takes tenacity, but shipping is a pain. in. the. ass. It’s cheaper, easier, and less stressful to start anew. I brought my clothes, shoes, and smaller cherished belongings in three suitcases and a backpack. Then I sent myself a dozen small boxes of outdoor gear, books, Legos, and other keeper items via Parcel Monkey. The cost ran about $1900, $300 of which was airline baggage fees.
Moving to Italy: Recommended Reality Reading
Culture Shock! Italy: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette by Alessandro Falessi and Raymond Flower
And in Conclusion…
The bottom line is that if moving to Italy is what you want badly enough, you’ll find a way. The only “secret” to suceeding is don’t quit, no matter what. Oh, and pack a spare pair of big girl panties/big boy undies. On that note, bless you for reading this article all the way to the bottom. If you still want to move to Italy, in bocca al lupo! For more straight talk and pro tips on navigating life after you move, read “Visas and Permessos 101,” “Peeing in Italy,” and “So, You Moved to Italy.” The latter is the sister article to this that covers things like the address numbering system and coffee rules.
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