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So, you want to move to Italy

So, you want to move to Italy

Florence, Italy's Santa Maria del Fiore duomo and Battistero di San Giovanni with crowd of tourists in foreground.

…actually, you probably don’t, and here’s why.

I mean that sincerely, not in a “wink, wink” way. The reasons people want to move to Italy are infinite. It’s not that it’s not stunning (it is) or that la dolce vita is a lie (although it kinda is). It’s that Under the Tuscan Sun sentimentally omits a lot of craptastic things you really need to know to understand the assignment. Every time someone comments on how I’m “living the dream” or tells me to “smile – you’re in Italy!” I’m reminded they have no clue what real Italian life entails. If honoring my truth calls for pushing back, I do without hesitation, but most of the time I respond with grace, because I think the world needs more of that.

Just so we’re clear, my intention isn’t to shit on your dream. (But I can tell you how to use a bidet if it goes down the toilet.) The reality of Italian life is that depending on the day/hour/minute, it can range from tranquil to bemused to areyoufuckingserious? And you have to take it all when you live here. So, at precisely the moment you need support, your friends and family will be convinced that you’re living a carefree life, riding around on the back of a Vespa driven by a hot Italian. That can be sit-down-on-your-Italian-tile-floor-and-cry frustrating for newcomers. Italians are better equipped to handle Italy’s challenges, but they can be pushed to the limit too. (Enough young people have left the country in the last decade that it has a “brain drain” crisis on its hands.)

Who I am to tell you about moving to Italy.

If you’re thinking, “Who’s she to tell me to slow my roll?!” The answer is, someone who did (and is doing) it. Three years, two lockdowns, and hundreds of crazy stories later, I’m still waking up to the gong of cathedral bells. Very few things played out how I envisioned, but I’ve had a lot of magic moments too. Hopefully this and – when I finish it – my future bestseller (Eight Couches to Italy) will give you a better idea of what it takes to make it here than Eat, Pray, Love.

It took me three and a half years to get from deciding to move to Florence from Seattle to doing it. Everything I did was focused on Missione: Italia. It was hard work, and the sacrifices were even harder. I’ve since learned that’s an impressively short timeframe, but it felt like it took forever to get here. I recognized early on that every challenge, delay, and perceived setback was part of an essential, character-building process, but it still wasn’t pretty. So, just remember that expediting the download of what you need to thrive in Italy and survive la dolce vita is unwise. Which, by the way, is an expression borne from the suffering of WWII, and if it ever did exist anywhere outside of Fellini’s classic, it doesn’t anymore.

So, if you want honest answers about what to expect if you decide you’re determined and ballsy enough to move to Italy, read on, i miei amici. (It takes both, plus mental fortitude and saintly patience.)

The Amalfi Coast of Italy

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 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 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.

When you commit to living like an Italian, life here is all that. But if you expect to “live the dream” [insert eyeroll] without having to learn Italian, change some of your ways (arrivederci, native habits), and forgo any semblance of comfort zone for five years, then Simon says, “freeze.” If you’re not so deeply compelled in the depths of your soul that you’re willing to risk everything you have, know, love, and are to move here, lemme save you a lot of angst and money with one word: DON’T. Plan an extended visit instead. (Most non-EU citizens can stay up to 90 days on a tourist visa.)

Spoiler alert: you’ll probably lose your shit a few times.

La dolce vita (or lack thereof) repeatedly pushes 98% of newbies to and even past their limits. 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). True nervous breakdowns are rare, but they do happen, so prioritizing your mental health is mission-critical. I haven’t had the experience of cry-splaining myself to an Italian psychotherapist, but if I ever need to, they exist. (Most cities and larger towns have English-speaking doctors and mental health professionals, and there are also online options.)

Moving to a new country is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, so whether you make it your bitch or your bestie, you need to know your own mind. And learn to advocate for yourself…claiming your spot here means fighting for it sometimes. It’s part of what drives Italian innovation.

Any move to Italy begins with a visa.

All roads may lead to Rome, but all immigration paths start at the visa doorway of the Italian Consulate in your region. Whether you proceed DIY or hire an immigration lawyer, no two experiences are the same from start to finish. You can find guides like this one by my friend Evelyn, who lives in Torino and knows her stuff, but Italy’s bureaucracy and regional differences make generic step-by-step instructions impossible. You write your story as you go.

Asylum-seekers, refugees, and other special situations notwithstanding, there are five common ways to move to Italy, plus four less common ones. If you can’t figure out the basics without being spoon-fed each step, then you’re not ready. If deciphering the Ministero degli Affari Esteri website overwhelms you, how will you navigate the in-country challenges you’re mathematically certain to have?

The Dunning-Kruger effect and how NOT to move 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!” Um, no. Just…no. She hasn’t even shaken off the jet lag or unpacked yet, never mind submitted her first Permesso application. Moving to Italy is a marathon. Your visa is merely the starting gun that opens the gate to the course. Getting it does not make you an expert, and immigration glitches suck to fix, so don’t trust wannabes high on the Dunning-Kruger effect.

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 refused to sell me food on a long trip. The Italian couple next to me bought wine and snacks from her twice. Thankfully, this is not common.

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 props to Frances Mayes, but Audrey Wells morphed her story into a fairytale. It sold better than one about tapping your foot on the concrete floor of the questura for hours would have. (As you watch immigrant toddlers run back and forth while listening to the “ding” of numbers at 4:45.)

Immigrants, expats, and jealousy, oh my!

One observation I’ve made is that people who take the leap to Italy tend to land in four groups:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. “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.
  4. 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/racist. I try not to use it and don’t consider myself one. I was born American, but I’m an immigrant just like everybody else at the questura.

Friendvy

Statistically speaking, at least some of your pre-move friends won’t all still be part of your circle after a year. The distance makes staying connected challenging, even with your besties and family. And the longer you’re here, the less you’ll have in common with them, and the less you’ll identify with your former home. (Because the cost of creating a new life is letting go of the old one.)

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 fiercely independent like me, that can be a hard truth to accept.)

Your technology will have an identity crisis.

Shipping, oh, anything to Italy is a potential hassle at best and a nightmare at worst. Let’s just say Italian Custom

About your stuff…

Shipping, oh, anything to Italy is a potential hassle at best and a nightmare at worst. Let’s just say Italian Customs can be quirky and there’s room for improvement. It’s cheaper, easier, and less stressful to start anew. I sold my furniture, household goods, and pretty much everything else I owned. But I alotted myself twelve small (12×18 inches, or 30×46 cm) boxes to seed my future life. I picked that size so I could carry them up seven flights of stairs. It was amusing to see what made the final cut. Mostly it was outdoor gear, plus a selection of winter jackets and boots, shoes, Legos, Christmas stuff, and books. (Paring that down took some ruthless decision making.)

I divvied up my clothes, six pairs of shoes, and small cherished items between three suitcases and a backpack. As someone who travels carry-on only, schlepping all of that luggage through three major airports was really cumbersome and stressful. I don’t know how people do it.

My parents eventually shipped the boxes via Parcel Monkey. Including the $300 I paid in baggage fees, the cost of getting my worldly belongings to Florence was $1900. Plus €245 in customs fees for the seven boxes that were snagged and delayed. A friend who just moved here used Send My Bag to get a giant and very heavy suitcase here. It sailed right through customs and arrived on the doorstep of her house in rural Tuscany before she did!

Italian bureaucracy is real.

Italy’s bureaucracy is legendary. If you’ve ever dealt with lost luggage on a trip here, you probably got a taste of it. In the context of living here, imagine a scenario involving a basic need, like WiFi. In the US, you select an ISP and either A) create an online account, choose a service bundle, click through a simple checkout process, pay with your debit card, and receive a FedEx package a couple days later; or B) go a retail location, give a customer rep some info, pay, and walk out with a modem, required cables/adapters, and DIY instructions.

Here, you start at the end and work your way back. Italy has made ginormous strides toward being digital, but internet setup requires going old school. Utilities were included for the first year I had my apartment. But when I renewed, my 4/4 contract (a 4-year lease I can extend for another 4) stipulated transferring everything into my name.

And thus, the adventure began.

My apartment already had WindTre and it worked, so I headed to the store nearby with the last bill, my passport, and far too much optimism. An animated 20-minute call by the manager later, I left with a form my landlady had to sign and the IBAN I was told to transfer €100 to before mailing the completed form to Rome, where it would take “maybe a month” to process.

Annoyed, I decided to see if TIM (my cell provider and Italy’s biggest ISP) had a better option. They did, so I got a sweet bundle deal and an install appointment for the following week. It was all good until the guy showed up and said, “Signora, NO…mi dispiace.” Short version: my building is 800 years old and it’s impossible to have fiber optic cable installed without a letter from the building owner and construction permit from the city. My top floor apartment faces the courtyard side of the block, so normal truck equipment can’t reach it from the street.

The guy who specializes in older technology.

Another tech confirmed the prognosis and they said someone would call me to make a new appointment. (I needed “the guy who specialized in older technology.”) I still hadn’t received a call a week later. My apartment was already wired for WindTre’s high-speed internet, so I decided to ask about opening an account from scratch. The answer was yes. But it cost double what TIM quoted unless I transferred my phone service. Reluctantly, I agreed.

Then the W3 manager asked for my “Certificato di Residenza” for the internet account setup. It’s an official registration certificate issued by the city of Florence, and it was mandatory. I didn’t have it, but I left thinking I’d be back in a couple of days. My lease was already registered with the city, so between that, my Permesso, and my codice fiscale (Italian social security number), it seemed like something quick. Alas, it requires submitting a residency declaration application and a bunch of required support documents to the city via PEC email with your SPID (digital ID). Guess what’s required to obtain a SPID? Proof of residency.

Benvenuti nella burocrazia italiana, tutti.

I was victorious in opening an Italian bank account after 18 months of being told no (WOO!), but I deferred to my avvocato on the certificato. Pro tip: even if you don’t think you’ll need an I immigration attorney, retain one. He submitted the forms I signed and scanned after he walked me through them over the phone and a few weeks later, my application was approved. All I had to do was go to the Anagrafe (city hall-ish) and get an official stamped copy. You had to have a SPID to make an appointment online (to get the document you need to get a SPID), so I just went to the physical address on their website.

Based on the two abandoned-looking buildings with no signage and one car but no people, I thought they must have moved and went home. I checked with an Italian friend though, and he said that was the right place. I went back the next day, and while I hate the visual assault of signage in the USA, I had to laugh when I finally found the one partly hidden, handwritten sign pointing to the door. They worked me in as an “emergency” and after barely waiting, then having a fun conversation about dogs with the lady who helped me, I walked out with my certificato. It was a good day.

In the several weeks all of that took, I’d gone to England for a few days and unlike TIM, WindTre only worked with wifi in the UK. I travel a lot and use my phone to navigate, so that was a hard no, and I switched back to TIM. That caused a clusterfuck for WindTre, so we had to start the paperwork all over. And I had to pay two months of phone service to do an early “buyout” of a contract for something that didn’t work. But what.ever. I just needed effing internet. Which I did finally get and am using to type this article.

But I digress…this example is the norm. Italians roll their eyes and make hand gestures when conversations about “la burocrazia” come up (which can be entertaining), but we all suck it up and find the fortitude, patience, and humor to deal with it because we have to. On the plus side, Karens don’t last here on account of there’s no manager to talk to who will tolerate her shit.

Yes, it’s the birthplace of Armani, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Da Vinci, Dante, Fellini, Ferrari, Fibonacci, Galileo, Michelangelo, Montessori, Stradivarius, Vespa, and Versace. (And other noteworthy Italians.) But Italy is a country, not a magic kingdom (that would be Disneyland). You gotta work for your fairytale here.

Questions to determine your readiness

You have visited, right? If not, start there, because DUH. Italy has a way of chewing up and spitting out the unprepared like stale ciabatta. Not doing live and in-color research to know what you’re getting into before you move to Italy would be crazy.

Do you speak Italian? Unless you had Italian parents or grandparents and grew up bilingual, you’ll want to start learning NOW. Fluency takes time and immersion, but future you will love you for giving them a head start. I used Rosetta Stone and Duolingo for 18+ months pre-move, watched Italian movies, and listened to Italian music. (Which was hard to find until I researched singer/group names instead of trying to search by genre.) Post-move, I enrolled in formal Italian classes, slept with Italian tutorials playing, and made an Italian audio-only rule for movies. I learn by seeing words spelled, so I use Italian subtitles, but English subtitles can help you fine-tune context.

Do you have unresolved trauma? If yes, DEAL WITH THAT (all the way!) before moving here or anywhere. Trauma brain is not optimized for making big life decisions. But also, you gotta be able to self-stabilize. And know who you are before making the leap to Italy or it will hand your issues to you on a Carrara marble slab. The last thing Italy needs more of is bitter expats with emotional baggage.

Do you have funds for airfare, visa/permesso fees, first/last/deposit/agent commission, shipping, insurance, and six months of living expenses? If not, pitter-patter. The cost of living is lower than most of the USA, especially if you live in a big city, but things happen. So do cashflow gaps since transferring money from an American account to a European one can take five business days.

Recommended move to Italy reading

Naked (in Italy): a memoir about the pitfalls of la dolce vita by M.E. Evans

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks

The Italians by John Hooper

Culture Shock! Italy: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette by Alessandro Falessi and Raymond Flower

Other straight talk articles on life in Italy:

Peeing in Italy
The Visa and Permesso Process
So, You Moved to Italy

And in Conclusion…

The bottom line is that if you want to move to Italy badly enough, you’ll find a way. The only secret to suceeding is don’t quit, no matter what. And pack a spare pair of big girl panties/big boy undies. On that note, in bocca al lupo!

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