For more than two years now, I’ve lived in the stunning Mediterranean country of Italy, known and loved for its dramatic landscapes, picture-book cities, and – most importantly – for its food.
It’s fair to say that life here can be pretty dreamy, my new ‘normal’ characterized by morning walks by the mountains and evenings spent at a table on a cobblestone street, Aperol in hand. But, as I’m sure every expat can attest, life abroad is always a learning curve.
What many people don’t see on the expertly-curated IG feeds of expats (myself included) are the hours spent traipsing from the government building to government building in search of the right paperwork, the days where all your loved ones just seem a little too far away, and the late-night supermarket breakdowns when you just can’t find a decent brand of tea (okay, so this may be specific to Brits).
But despite the inevitable highs and lows of expat life in Italy, so much of who I am today stems from overcoming these challenges and learning to embrace two different ways of life.
If you’re already a seasoned expat, or are considering a life abroad, then hopefully these 17 lessons will resonate with you. From the correct time to drink a coffee to navigating an Italian social life, here are seventeen things I’ve learned as an expat in Italy.
1) There Actually Is A Limit To How Much Pizza You Can Eat
If you’d asked me a few years ago how much pizza is too much pizza, I’d have told you that the limit does not exist. But I was wrong. It turns out that eating pizza for both lunch and dinner four days in a row isn’t great for the digestive system, and can leave both your stomach and your bank account feeling a little worse for wear. Whilst it may be hard to resist temptation, you always know that a delicious pizza is never far away, for those times when you really need it.
Famously, Italy’s most delicious pizza can be found in the streets of Naples: its birthplace. So if a soft, doughy pizza dripping with toppings is what you’re looking for, then head south.
2) If You Want To Make Friends, Be Prepared To Drink 15 Coffees A Day
It may be a well-established stereotype, but Italians really do drink a lot of coffee. Often, this is because it is used as an excuse to socialise. When at work, or at university, coffee breaks are frequent, lengthy, and often involve everyone in the office/class. And whilst you may find yourself feeling slightly shaky come the afternoon, you’ll also find yourself with a bunch of new friends.
3) To Become Truly Fluent In Italian, You Must Use Hand Gestures
Contrary to popular belief, Italians do not just wave their hands around at random – or, at least, not all of them. Hand gestures in Italy are actually part of their language, with each gesture representing a different and very specific meaning.
To avoid any accidental faux-pas, try watching a YouTube video or reading a blog post before your visit – once you’ve mastered the hand gestures, the language itself will follow!
4) Even If There’s No One In Front Of You, You Will Always Have To Wait At Least 30 Minutes At The Post Office
It’s one of the great mysteries of life that almost every expat in any country will confirm: whether or not there’s a queue at the post office, you will always have to wait at least half an hour. You will also spend much more time in the post office in Italy than you’ll ever have spent at the post office in your home country.
Maybe European post offices have a separate time zone, or maybe it’s just one of those inexplicable feats of nature.
5) Road Rules Exist Only As A Rough Guide – Everyone Drives However They Want
Disclaimer: I have always lived in the north of Italy, and I’m told that the south is WAY more chaotic. If that’s the case, then the thought of driving in the south is terrifying.
Drivers in Italy live up to the stereotype; red lights are optional, no one has used an indicator since 1989, and overtaking is something that takes place even when a car is heading towards you in the opposite direction. Despite this, everyone seems to have everything under control, somehow.
6) If It’s Your Birthday, You Have To Pay. For Everyone
A tradition I still can’t seem to wrap my head around (as the UK is completely the opposite), when it’s your birthday, you are expected to invite all your friends out for drinks and/or dinner and pay for everyone ALL NIGHT.
7) Always Bring A Book With You. Neither Public Transport Nor Your Friends Will Ever Arrive On Time
Never have I read more books than during the time I’ve spent in Italy. Whether you’re waiting for a bus, train, or even a friend, be prepared for the idea that nothing will be on time. Once you’ve grown used to this concept, life actually becomes more laid-back and far less hurried.
If you’re looking for reading inspiration, then take a look at our top 10 novels to fuel your wanderlust.
8) Traditional Italian Recipes Are Not To Be Touched. And, No: There Is No Cream In Carbonara
Italians are admirably proud of their culture and will defend it until they’re blue in the face – especially when it comes to food. Don’t suggest additions or modifications to any recipes in Italy, or you may find yourself at the centre of a heated argument. And, let’s face it: they know what they’re doing when it comes to the kitchen.
9) Italians Will Wear Jeans Even In 35-Degree Heat, And Laugh At You If You’re Too Warm
When you live in a certain climate long enough, your body adapts. So when 24 degrees hits my skin, I do what any Brit would do, and whip out my summer wardrobe. But it’s not unusual to find Italians wearing full-length jeans and a light jacket in July and August.
10) They Are Also Some Of The Most Generous People You’ll Ever Meet
Italians are undeniably some of the warmest and most welcoming people I’ve ever come across, accepting you into their families and always willing to offer a helping hand. Expect to find yourself invited to friends’ and colleagues’ houses for dinner, or even for Easter or Christmas.
11) Lunch Breaks In Italy Can Last 2-3 Hours
In Italy, schools finish at 1 pm, and office lunch breaks are often lengthy. Why? So that people can go home to have a full cooked lunch with their family. Here, there’s no scoffing down a Starbucks panini at your desk as you rush to make the latest deadline; nothing is more important than taking time to enjoy a meal with your loved ones.
This is a tradition that, in my opinion, every culture can learn from.
12) You Have To Bring A Thousand Paper Documents To Every Single Appointment You Go To
Italy is celebrated for its rich history and for its steadfast traditions. But sometimes this comes at the expense of logic and efficiency. It’s no secret that, as an expat, there are always a million documents and forms that need to be filled in in any country – but Italy’s total lack of online or paperless resources can be slightly infuriating.
The trick is to bring every piece of paper anyone has ever given you (and I mean EVERY piece of paper) to any appointment or meeting, just in case. Chances are, you’ll need them all.
13) Each Region Is Like A Country, With Its Own Unique Culture
Italy only became a united country during the late 1800s and has only existed the way it exists today since the 1900s. Because of this, each region is completely distinct in its culture and its traditions. So if you have a pretty good grasp of the Italian language but suddenly find yourself understanding nothing, then the chances are that someone is speaking in the local dialect. In fact, there are two regions in Italy whose dialects are so vastly different to Italian that they are considered separate languages: Sardinia and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
14) Drinking A Cappuccino Anytime After 10 am Is Not Acceptable
Ordering a cappuccino anytime after 10 am is almost akin to wearing a T-shirt that states “I AM NOT ITALIAN”. For Italians, a cappuccino is strictly a breakfast drink, and to drink it at any other time is almost criminal. *Sips cappuccino as she writes this article at 4:30 pm*
15) Remember To Celebrate Every Time You Successfully Complete A Bureaucratic Process
As an expat, bureaucracy is never-ending. So instead of driving yourself crazy with lists of all the documents you still have to sort out, try celebrating the ones that are done, instead – preferably with an Aperol Spritz.
16) Don’t Expect Anything To Be Open In August – All Italians Are On Holiday
During the month of August, try not to plan too much: everyone will be on holiday, which means that no one at all is working. Instead of stressing about all the things that you need to get done, take it as an excuse to head to your favourite Italian destination, too. Escape the heat with a dip in the sparkling waters of Cinque Terre, or wander the shaded streets of Florence.
17) Life Is To Be Savoured For The Small Moments
If there’s one lesson, in particular, I’ve learned from my time in Italy, it’s that life is to be savoured. In larger cities and more fast-paced cultures, it’s easy for the everyday moments to pass you by in a flurry of takeaway coffees, crowded buses, and jam-packed social schedules.
Life in Italy teaches you to slow down and enjoy the little things: a hot coffee at your local café before work, an evening walk to your favourite gelateria, or a long lunch with family and friends.
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to visit Italy like an expat. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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