Looking back on 5 years as a foreigner in Italy… with graphs!

Adapting to a new culture can be a tumultuous process, even for those who consider themselves world travelers. When it comes to actually settling down to live in a new country, there is a slow transformation that has to take place. Not only do your views and perspectives change, but the ways you react, the ways you think, and the ways you cope with daily life develop as well.

It’s not always a pleasant transformation either. Sometimes it feels like a big hammer hitting you on the head every morning, and sometimes you worry about losing yourself in the midst of these new circumstances.

I can tell you that, for me, the past five years in Italy has been rough at times. Please allow me to supplement that statement with this handy little graph:

My 5 Years in Italy


Note that the depths of my “expat depression” (as I call it) were during Year 3, when homesickness was high, happiness was low, and pasta weight was in an uncontrollable ascension!

This is the part where, no doubt, someone will go, “oh yeah, you pooooor thing. You have to live in Italy – land of pasta and wine. Let me weep for you.

Yes, I am aware that there are worse places to live. I am aware that there is an ever-flowing source of food, culture, and history. And I don’t mean to take those things for granted at all, and I don’t mean to say that I have it harder than anyone else. However, I think it’s a mistake not to talk about the difficult parts of living in Italy, for fear of ruining the fairy tale image my friends and family have in their heads.

It seems that Italy enjoys a particular status that few other countries have been able to attain in the eyes of Americans: No matter how much chaos there is, no matter how inefficient things get, no matter how corrupt the government, no matter how great the resistance to change, and no matter how many times Berlusconi makes front page news, the average American response is an excited, “Oooooooh, Italy!!!!”, with a little shrug and head shaking to excuse all previously mentioned behavior.

It’s fascinating, really.

The thing that has always been hardest for me to explain to my American friends back home and my Italian friends here (without offending either one) is the fundamental difference in mentality between a young American and a young Italian. Please remember, this is just my humble opinion about a very general characterization of the difference between two cultures. Don’t get your panties in a wad if you feel that it’s a generalization… because it is! Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but here are my observations on American and Italian national psyches:

For better or for worse, Americans place a lot of emphasis on individuality. If I don’t succeed at something, it’s because I didn’t try hard enough. There’s more I could do. The possibilities are limited only by my ambition. I think this is kind of the classic “frontier mentality” – go West and you shall succeed. Make everything bigger, better, larger, wider, and you will find success measured in land, gold, money. Obviously that has severe disadvantages, as we have seen in recent years.

Italians, however, are subject to a national mentality that has been shaped by centuries of invasions, constantly playing defense, and refusing to change for fear of losing identity. The result is a system in which sometimes you just can’t succeed… the system won’t let you. This manifests itself positively in the creative, entrepreneurial mindset that Italians and Italian immigrants around the world are famous for. The negative side, however, is what feels like a defeatist attitude toward just about everything. A frequent response given by young Italians is, “yes, but you can’t change it! E’ così!”

The phrase “é così” is the bane of my existence here. Yet I use it constantly.

More and more, I find myself using it in the very circumstances that drove me nuts in my first couple of years here. I wrote an article a while ago: “1,2,3, é così: Learning to submit to the system.”   While I tried to keep the tone of the post light-hearted, the phases that I described are probably similar to the phases many other expats or immigrants experience:  first you’re largely oblivious, then you have delayed culture shock, you try to rebel and fail miserably, and then you slowly start to get over it.

Will you ever feel completely “at home” in your new country? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect not. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I’m not so sure.

Anyway, these are my thoughts as I look back on my five years here in Italy, but they may not be yours… I’d love to hear how experiences have been different or similar, so leave a comment if you’d like!

23 thoughts on “Looking back on 5 years as a foreigner in Italy… with graphs!

  1. I just read your post with great interest. My story is that I moved here when my little boy was 6 months old having quit my job as my husband was offered a job we couldn’t (and didn’t want to for fear of regret) turn down. I spoke only holiday Italian and knew that consequently living in Italy would be hard at first but I knew it would get easier with time.

    That was just over 19 months ago and whilst most things are easier than when I first arrived, I still find it hard being a ‘foreigner’ or ‘straniero’ at times. Whilst my Italian is better than it was and I feel I have probably graduated from holiday to basic Italian (grammar mostly terrible and knowledge of verbs and vocabulary still quite limited) there is still a long journey ahead of me linguistically speaking. Hopefully my boy starting at the local Nido d’infanzia will help both my spoken and oral Italian as none of the other mum’s speak any English.

    Who knows what the next 19 months will bring. I hope my Italian continues to improve as I know that this is important to me.

    • 19 months!! You’re an expat baby!! Ok, toddler.
      🙂 I’ll be interested to see if you go through similar phases as me in the years to come. Hopefully not… I didn’t discover the whole expat blogging world until recently. It really has helped a lot to know that there are other people out there with similar experiences. I felt very alone for the first 3 years or so.

      I think the school mom contacts will be a big resource for you! It’s hard to make friends with Italian ladies (I find), but eventually it can happen. It’s just absolutely invaluable as far as settling in.
      I’ll make sure to share some language links with you, then… If you have a smartphone, Duolingo App is great!

      • Hello M, I saw your reply and noticed you said it is hard to make friends with Italian ladies. I have found it more difficult as well. We moved from a place that had lots of expats(where other expats are more open and easy to make friends), to a small village in Northern Italy (where people are friendly) but more difficult to make friends and get play dates for my kids easily. My daughter notices it. Sometimes it feels a little lonely. Any advice?

        • Yeah, I hear ya. My advice? Be annoying. 🙂 Just throw the concept of shame out the window and force yourself on some group of ladies. Go for an established group – they might be looking to shake things up. Persistence, persistence, persistence. Always be happy, cheery, and positive, and you’ll confuse them, then intrigue them, then eventually charm them. The incessant optimism thing is a tool I use frequently, even in the face of someone who I KNOW is making fun of me. My mom always taught me to kill ’em with kindness! Eventually they’ll crack despite themselves!

          This is a good post topic. I’ll do an interview with my Italian girlfriends to ask them what THEY think a foreigner can do to make lady friends… might be interesting!

  2. Hi M, I liked very much this post because I basically spend my time making such graphs and considerations:-) I agree with your American vs. Italian mentality comparison (good job with the disclaimer, it will save you the insults:-) and I can add something more: Americans, thanks to their geographical position and the fact that they normally relate with the Italian-American population, keep in mind a romantic image if Italy. They think of Mr. Ripley holidaying in the south, of Jackie O. barefoot in Capri. They heard of Portofino and the northern lakes. They rode a Vespa in Rome and felt like Gregory Peck. The Italian dream is fading, though, for other European nationals. I sometime think it’s time Italy stops relying on its grand past to make up for the poor present…

    • Good point… there is definitely some disillusionment going on with our European neighbors. AND I really like your phrase about the “grand past”. Thanks for commenting, Ottominuti – thoughtful words, as always!

  3. I am moving to Florence in December, so I look forward to being able to give you my experiences in the near future 🙂

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. I’m at the start of my second year in Italy and I have no illusions about it being a dream place to live. It’s often frustrating, dirty, annoying and noisy. On the other hand, we’ve made some wonderful Italian friends, visited some lovely places and drunk a lot of great coffee. It’s definitely a mixed experience living here!

  5. I will never understand Italian attitudes. I find them pessimistic about many things and it upsets me that they won’t even try to change things they don’t like.
    I love Italy and am really happy that I get to spend at least 6 months every year there. I try to ignore the frustrations and enjoy the good bits.

  6. I have no illusions about life in Italy being a dream existence. It’s so frustrating, dirty, noisy, expensive and, at times, just plain ridiculous. On the other hand, we made some wonderful Italian friends, visited some beautiful places and drunk a lot of great coffee. So I’d say it’s a very mixed experience!

  7. thanks for this post. i came to your blog because i was doing my little research on how foreigners feel in italy – and here it is your article. i’ve been thinking about moving to Italy, well actually not thinking about moving, but thinking about possibility to move 🙂 and here is your graph. this curve of happiness says a lot. i’ve actually would have to read all your blog, and all your post to know your story, but the fact is that it seems there is nothing magical or fairy tale’ish about moving to italy. . and it’s actually a turn off, but it’s really good to know real situation. i’m sorry i can’t read all your story right away, but my question would be – would you move to Italy (i mean if you wouldn’t have to because of family, work, studies or etc.), considering all the things you know about italian life now?

    • Hi Gintare, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. What a difficult question you ask! Oh my.
      It’s tricky to separate out all the things you mentioned… family, work, etc. I’m not sure I would move anywhere at all without those factors of life being involved. If I weren’t married to an Italian, no… I guess I would probably not be living in Italy. But not because I don’t like it. I just doubt it would have happened that way. If you’re looking for a magical place to pick up and flee to, leaving all worries and cares behind… who knows, it could be a good fit, but more likely you’ll find that the worries will follow you!

      Depends how much you can put up with and what background you’re coming from. It also depends on your outlook. I realize I tend to use this website as a pedestal from which to vent, but there are plenty of magical things that happen here as well. I mean, the food alone is reason enough, if you’re into that kind of thing.

      I’m a pretty upbeat, positive person… but I’m not sure that anywhere in the world is magical. A place is what you make of it!
      … right?
      Does anyone else want to add anything?

      • thanks a lot for reply. and you are right – probably there are no place that would magical – the sooner i understand that the better it is. and seeing Italy as a tourist (like me – fascinated by culture, people, weather food) and actually living a life there is totally different. I have pretty good job in the place i live now, stable life, but i guess i‘m having this „crisis“ when i want some changes, you know to do something „crazy“. It‘s just seems like living in italy would be more like crazy-bad, than crazy-good 🙂
        Thanks again for sharing your stories, and i really enjoyed reading your posts you linked in this comment. I will think abuot any other options of doing something crazy and make some decisions.
        And i hope your curve of happiness in this graph will reach highest level again soon…best of luck to you.

        • Thanks! Keep in touch, and let me know where you end up.
          Remember, there’s nothing wrong with a crazy change every once in a while… Sometimes you gotta shake things up!

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  9. Boy does your post hit home. I have been here for 20 years and been through it all. I have cried over the nastiness of my mother-in-law, been outraged at uncleaned dog poop all over the street, or bus drivers who are too busy on their cell phones to help you out with directions. I’ve had furious fights with my Italian husband about whether our children can go barefoot or climb trees. I’ve been aggravated when Italians turn up their noses at a dish because it has curry powder in it. In government offices I”ve tried to tell Italians that it is possible to maintain a line (without any luck), and I’ve learned how to play sweet and humble when some idiotic bureaucrat is giving me a hard time for no reason. And I agree with you, back in the States nobody wants to hear about the bad stuff. Italy is Tuscany, Chianti, good wines, great food, seductive men and sexy women. I have clung proudly to my American individuality and my attitude towards getting things done. I hope at least it has rubbed off on my half-american, half-italian children. So…that was a rant about some of the bad stuff, as you know there is so much that is wonderful about Italy too….all I need is an aperitivo watching the sunset on the orange and pink palazzi in Rome and I am back in a good mood.

    • great comment, and so true. Thanks, Trisha. I’m working on a post right now that is similar to your Roman palazzi mood changer! stay tuned!

  10. Just found your terrific blog – why did it take so long?? Anyway, your graph is pure genius. And I think you’re bang on about the different approaches to life, US and Italy. We’ve lived in Italy for 13 years now (only the first four full time) and while it has certainly gotten easier over time, it remains immensely frustrating and no, I don’t think one (or I, anyway) could ever feel completely ‘at home’ there. There have been a lot of changes in the past decade + (take-a-number in the post office, for instance) – there’s more that can be done online every year. But still the bureaucracy is mind-numbing and time-consuming. I guess my favorite instance was, some years ago, when we had to go to one office on the west side of town to pick up a form which, once filled out, had to be filed on the east side of town. Why? Anyway, I look forward to reading more here – I like the profiles. Good idea.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Farfalle1!
      13 years?! wow. You probably have a lot of wisdom to pass on to me, then. Interesting that you still don’t feel completely “at home”… confirms my suspicions about the future!
      Stay in touch!

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  12. Hi there I’m so glad to hear something positive about Italy. I’ve been here 8 years and have gone through 4 years of hell being bullied out of a job and then bullied by my neighbors. It’s a long story thou and with the problems of the crisis I wouldn’t recommend any of you taking a job in the tourism industry ( ever!! ) I’m still here and hoping that the next four years of my life will go more smoothly ( by not ever working in Italy again!!) It’s best to go back to your country and work, then enjoy the beautiful months sipping wine by the pool or on the beach. I would like to know if anyone else out there has ever experienced a similar situation? Terry

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