Most expat days in Italy are great, and may involve vespa rides, homemade pasta and many spritz. On other expat days, you may feel like despite living here for years you understand none of the cultural nuances, you are a freak show and you’ll never get the hand of this multitasking while riding a bike business (how do they hold an umbrella and smoke a cigarette simultaneously WHILE cycling?!). Today was one of those days, so I vented my frustration in a highly sarcastic article where I can make lots of digs at all those irritatingly well-manicured Italians. Be strong, expats!
1.You expect to make friends on day 1
I moved to a small city in the Veneto where most people my age have never lived in a different city, let alone country. They spend university commuting from home, returning at the end of the day to home cooked food and clean socks. Even when they get jobs, and partners, they often still live with their parents. A big city like Milan certainly offers more opportunities for meeting Italians who have actually travelled in a plane, and who know what Thai food is. But as an expat and a foreigner you have many experiences, emotions and difficulties that are untranslatable to your Italians acquaintances (and vice versa!). However you will eventually find those special friendships that transcend cultural differences, and they are worth waiting for. Just don’t get disheartened by all the times you have to pretend you’re really interested in why orange juice is disastrous for digestion, and that you also think being rebellious means disobeying your mother and going swimming less than three hours after eating lunch.
2.You don’t learn Italian / speak in Italian
This can also contribute to the making friends issue. If you can only use the present tense you can’t have very many meaningful conversations. However, more than just learning Italian is having the confidence to speak it. We’ve all got stories of how we ordered the penis pasta, pene, instead of the penne, or told our students not to fart, scorreggiare, instead of not to get discouraged, scoraggiare. Just don’t try to impress your mother-in-law by saying you never use ‘preservativi’ (condoms) when you mean preservatives. However, whatever embarrassing mistakes you make, don’t allow people to practice their English on you in social situations (unless they’re extremely good) or you’ll find your relaxing aperitivo has turned into an afterhours English lesson.
3.You’re daunted by the bureaucracy
Even if you have a good grasp of Italian, all information regarding residency, permits and other official minefields seems completely unintelligible. But you shouldn’t shy away. Remember many Italians are also in the ‘boh’ category when asked to explain it. So if you’re in the town hall being lectured at by some stuck up middle-aged civil servant who seems to deliberately want you to feel inadequate, stand your ground and refuse to give up until she gets off her pedestal and explains it to you in Italian suited to a ten-year-old. Or gleefully waste her afternoon typing every sentence she says into google translate. After all, when you leave she’s just going to go back to drinking endless coffees with her other cronies.
4.You try to blend in
Italians stare at the best of times, but when it’s the height of summer and you still look like the white washed walls of every Italian home or, heaven forbid, you leave the house with wet hair, you begin to feel like a museum exhibit. Many of us expats make the mistake of trying to blend in – buying hideous sparkly trainers, carrying a Prima classe handbag and thinking we look cute in Timberlands – but we can never pull it off like the Italians. I’ve learnt (the hard way) that it’s much better to just pluck up the confidence to have your aperitivo in flip-flops while everyone else is in 12 inch heels, or drink that damn cappuccino at 4 in the afternoon if you want too , and when all heads turn in your direction just imagine you’re a celebrity and relish the thought that most Italians would sell their Prada dressed soul for this much attention. Oh, and when Italians tell you that your cup of tea with milk looks disgusting, reign in the desire to fling an overpriced tea bag in their face and instead remind them that espresso coffee stains teeth really badly. Burn.
5.You think every Italian will welcome you with open arms
Probably the greatest misconception about Italians (apart from that they like the accordion) is that they are all joyously friendly, generous and radiantly happy and will never be mean to you. This is not true, and you learn that very quickly when you make your first tiny mistake when driving or cycling around. If you hesitate, stop in a minorly inconvenient place, or drive cautiously, Italian drivers become a bunch of braying bloodhounds fighting over the last scraps of your self-confidence. The first few times it’s permissible to arrive home in tears and clouds of humiliation, but then you need to buck up, grow a thick skin, and follow the Italians’ example by simply not caring, or shouting a bit of abuse back for fun. Useful hand gestures are the brush under the chin with the back of your fingers to mean ‘non me ne frega niente’, I couldn’t care less, or the corna, when you do a kind of rocker sign with your hand, which is shorthand for your wife is having an affair behind your back.
If you’ve experienced any of these difficulties or any others that make you want to hide in your apartment nursing a large glass of Montepulciano I’d love to hear from you!