Pointing the finger at me: My 5 biggest mistakes as an immigrant expat in Italy.

If my last post was any indicator, you may have noted that I’ve had a pretty sh*t week. Almost every day this week was one of those I’d-like-to-take-Italy-and-stuff-it-into-a-soccer-ball-and-punt-it-into-space kinda days.

I know I’ve promised my readers an #EVAitaly level 10 story (if you don’t know what that is, check the link), full of venom spewing quips about the ridiculousness of all Italians. HOWEVER, in an effort to stay on the happy side of life, I’ve decided that I should first point the finger at myself… (and then point it at this country . Oh yeah, there will be pointing! Don’t think this little gesture of apparent conscientiousness gets you off the hook, Italy!).

eh hem.

SO, let’s all breathe and take a look at some of the crazy crap we Americans in Italy try to pull, shall we? More specifically, let’s look at some of the crap I pull or have pulled since arriving in this fine land:

1. I have not yet taken a real Italian language course.

Ok, keep your pants on. I do speak Italian. And I don’t think I have as horrible of an accent as I could, hailing from Texas. And I only use Itanglish for its comedic purposes when speaking in English, not in actual Italian conversation.

But I only speak Italian because I studied French in school. When I got here, I basically applied an Italian accent to the grammar rules of French and attempted to catch on to the rest. I never took a class or sat in a lesson (with the exception of a free course offered by the comune for immigrants that shall have to be addressed in another post – I would NOT call it a language course). I did a couple of casual language exchanges with friends wanting to learn English, but nothing really structured. Nothing that even came close to addressing conditional, conjunctive, subjunctive, etc.

I have been hiding behind the advantage I grew up with: two language-teaching, translator-trained parents. Languages were just always around as I was growing up, so I picked up Italian the way you pick up walking or riding a bike.

I fall occasionally, but I get by.

The result is that now I speak conversational Reggiano Italian. What does that mean? It means I can only use Present and Passato Prossimo verb tenses, because that’s all that’s used in conversation here. It means that the array of slang that I have picked up is all in the “cazzo” and “Dio ______” realm, as opposed to (for example) the “figo” realm like in Parma. It means that any time I have to write something, my marito has to check it… and then laugh.

It’s really my own damn fault for not just sitting my tush down in an Italian language course. But I don’t want to. I don’t have time and I don’t have motivation, and so I remain here… at fault for not immersing myself as much as I could in the language.

There. See? Pointing the finger at myself.

pointing the finger at me

pointing the finger at me

2. For the first 4 years here, I isolated myself and remained dependent on my marito.

When I first arrived in Italy, I was presented with the incredibly difficult task of trying to make friends in a small town, in a different language, in a strange country, and with people who already had their group pretty well defined.

It sucked.

It sucked hard.

I attempted a few dinners out with girls, but I felt like they were just judging me (they were). I attempted to follow my husband’s crowd around town, but I felt like a pathetic tag-along (I was).

It was really really hard, and so after a few months, I gave up. I found it easier to isolate myself than to put myself out there and try to make friends. Much of it was a language barrier issue (see the importance of above).

I felt like I couldn’t possibly make friends if I couldn’t crack a joke in Italian. DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO BE FUNNY IN ITALIAN? It’s ridiculous. They don’t get sarcasm and making puns is tricky when you’re learning the language. It took me about 4 years to realize that one thing everyone DID find funny was the concept of an American in this tiny little town. Slowly, but surely, I’ve now harassed a few girls into being my friends.

But it took me a LONG time.

Lesson of the story – don’t give up. I lost a lot of time there.

a lone chestnut - eaten by no one

a lone chestnut – eaten by no one

3. I expected to change their minds.

It ain’t never gonna change, so get over it.

There will never come a day when Italians wake up one morning and decide to meet all their afternoon deadlines. There will never come a day when an Italian public administration office revamps its filing system to require less paper. There will never come a day when you can hire a plumber based on a Yelp review, instead of La Famiglia’s.

Just get over it.

I know that you’re reading this, and you may even think you’re understanding what I’m saying. I read something like this years ago when I arrived in Italy. And I, too, thought I was understanding. But I still had to go through the inevitable phases of submitting to the system:

  1. outrage,
  2. rebellion,
  3. and eventual submission.

Like a mother pleading with her teenage daughter not to make the same mistake she made of sleeping with the quarterback of the football team*, I am pleading with you to skip the first two phases. Yet I know that you will do it anyway. You’ll get hurt. You’ll be upset. And then you’ll get over it.

It’s a part of immigrant life.

* Mom, I did not sleep with the quarterback of the football team. The metaphor was just a result of creative license and Texan cultural influence. He wasn’t the quarterback; I think he was a receiver. Just kidding.  🙂 

if you can't beat 'em, join 'em - check out my new parking skillz

if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em – check out my new parking skillz

4. I thought I could make it on my own.

I’ve always been a very independent person. I have no problem with the concept of holding down 4 jobs to make enough money to pay rent. So when we arrived here, to the apartment my marito owns outright, I thought we were going to have it super easy. No rent! Whoohooo! Party time!

If this website had a big red buzzer, I would hit it now.

I could go into all the details, but it would make this even longer than necessary. Just listen to me:

The way it works here ; the way the system functions, the way the culture operates – does not allow for independence in the way that we are used to it in America. Now stop being outraged by that statement, and listen again.

All the resources you need already exist in a communal form within La Famiglia. USE THEM. Don’t try to be a hero and do it all yourself. You might as well go find a brick wall and smash your head into it all day.

USE La Famiglia and the help that they are not only willing to give, but that they feel obliged and honored to give. Denying their help is just prolonging the inevitable and offending them in the process.

M embracing others (don't worry, she can still breathe)

M embracing others (don’t worry, she can still breathe)

5. I have been known to tell fairy tales.

It is incredibly tempting to fall into the role that has been assigned to you by folks back home:

“My friend, M, lives a total fairy tale life! She met an Italian in Australia, fell in love, and moved to his small town in Italy. They got married in the mountains and they just bought land next to a castle that looks like Heaven itself. She is sooooo lucky.”

THIS is the reason that depression is on the rise – Facebook envy. If you look at my personal Facebook account, sure, that’s what you see. Yay, how great for me.

My first 4 years here in Italy, I didn’t tell anyone at all about the bad stuff. Even when I did, it somehow came off as cute and quaint, instead of frustrating and soul-wrenching. It’s partially because it was easier that way – to play into people’s expectations. It seems no matter what happens in Italy (Berlusconi trials come to mind), the general reaction from Americans is: “Oh, that silly Italy. I can’t wait to go on a gondola ride in Venice!“.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started writing here that I started telling the truth about crap that frustrates me here in Italy. And, of course, it’s always a fine line that you tread between addressing difficult realities and just bitching about life.

I suspect that in reaction to this, there will be some who say “M, shut up, you live it Italy – why can’t you just be positive?“. And there will be others who say, “M, you’re being too polite. This place sucks the soul out of me“.

To the former I would respond: “I am a positive, optimistic person, asshole. Go sprinkle glitter on someone else.” To the latter I would respond, “Suck it up or leave; those seem like the two options you’ve got.

Or, do like I’m doing: talk it out.  I find that it helps immensely.

Thoughts, anyone?

(insert photo to perpetuate fairy tale stereotype and make friends jealous)

(insert photo to perpetuate fairy tale stereotype and make friends jealous)

53 thoughts on “Pointing the finger at me: My 5 biggest mistakes as an immigrant expat in Italy.

  1. Life as an expat is not easy is it! And I have the advantage of living on an island that is a British colony, so at least there is not the language barrier! But I just don’t get the way people behave here yet. I was startled by how abrupt and rude some people are who work in customer service related jobs. And there are ‘rules’ that nobody tells you about, like it’s considered bad manners to ask the bus driver a question. Or tipping the person who packs your bag at the supermarket is not optional, its a must, no matter whether you wanted your bags packed for you or not (which I don’t!), or how badly they are packed. It’s a learning curve!
    But the upside is that I get to live on a lovely island, and experience a totally different way of life.
    Jane x

    • Well, I don’t know what island you live on, but here on the mainland the bus drivers don’t shut up and tipping is considered an excessive show of wealth… at least where I am. (Where ARE you?!)

      Yes – the upside is the experience. The experience. We all get a great experience.
      But it’s ok sometimes to say “f*ck the experience, I want utter ignorance”… right? 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Jane!

      • Ha, ha! That’s very true! I’m living in Bermuda at the moment. Isn’t it fascinating how different things are depending on geography. I don’t have a problem with the funny little ways of doing things here, it’s just no one tells you about it, you have to learn the hard way, which makes for some embarrassing incidents along the way!
        Jane x

      • Hi M,

        When Mrs Sensible took me to Sicily for the first time, I left a tip at the local trattoria, the owner tried to give me the money back.. I asked Mrs Sensible to explain it was a tip. She said “just pick up the money and lets go…please.

  2. Nobody tips anyone around here… Or is that just me?! And there are no buses.
    You do a great job of encapsulating all that is wonderful and frustrating about Italy. I will from now on try not to get enraged by phases 1 and 2. But I just don’t know if I can accept that things will never change!
    You have married into an Italian family, with the advantages (and issues!) that brings – for those of us who have no Italian links here, it is different again. Certainly everyone, but everyone, thinks we’re completely mad to want to live here, and without a support network, life here with kids is relentless. They’re home from school at 12.30, which doesn’t exactly support the 21st century (or, damn it, the 20th century) concept of working mothers. And much as I love spending time with my kids – it’s one of the main reasons we came here – I would dearly love to be able to go out without them, just occasionally.

    • I hear ya. We don’t have kids yet. Perhaps because I don’t want them home in the afternoons! Nor do I like the idea of grandparents basically raising them. Which is what will happen, because we both work.

      I REALLY genuinely don’t understand the advantage of 6 days, morning only. I can’t see a single thing good about it. And I’m trying.

      It is a bit severe to say that things will NEVER change. They will, but as a pace so slow that it will be imperceivable. 😦 sadness.


  3. She speaks the truth! Amazing how lucky the folks back home think you are for living the Italian good life. I am guilty of a couple of these – probably because I know I will be moving back to England after a couple of years so it doesn’t really matter if my Italian isn’t perfect (did a year’s worth of lessons but am still struggling majorly) or I don’t understand how the local commune administration system works. Fortunately I have made some lovely Italian friends and they help me through (in exchange for chocolate brownies…)

    • yes, it’s true. Chocolate chip cookies are my preferred exchange currency. Much is attained with them! 🙂

      Sad to hear you’re leaving us! How do you KNOW you’re oging back? Two years is a looooong time… ya neva knoooow!!! 🙂

  4. I can understand your theoretical reluctance to have your children raised by grandparents – but to have them there as an option will be a huge advantage too!
    Here, everyone assumes that we must have had a terrible falling out with everyone in our family – what possible other reason could there be for not wanting them all living in the same building as us? 🙂

    • haha, fantastic. Yeah, we’re technically across the street from La Famiglia, and there are times that they feel that we don’t get to see each other enough.

  5. It is such a relief when you finally cross into the submission phase. You can actually say, “well, this IS Italy,” with the Italian shrug and hand gesture instead of gnashing your teeth and pulling your hair. I actually find myself being uncharitable to other expats who are still outraged or rebellious. In fact, I actually have defended Italian ways of doing (some) things. That is until I have to call ENEL on the phone (because the internet is down) and ask them again why, for the last 18 months I still can’t get my bill set up for autopay or I have to go to the post office to pay the garbage collection bill and some 4′ 6″ old lady jumps in front of me “to ask a question.”

    • 🙂 right, and at THAT point it’s ok to drop kick someone. But to be fair… I would drop kick an old American lady if cut in front of me too. I’m not biased in that way.

    • That’s it! That’s the important point you reach – resignation. When studying in Italy, we always said your living experience was either that you became isolated and avoided real Italy (because it was difficult/ impossible and such a hassle to try and align your non-Italian way of life) or else you gravitated to the opposite pole and ‘went native’. Italy doesn’t let you compromise with the Italian way of life. Foreign imported culture can be accepted but only on their terms. Lovely Italian-style ready-meals are now mainstreaming in the Coop and Esselunga – unlike 30 years ago. But although microwaved it’s still (generally!) yummy pasta and not some heavy northern European gloop. Are my prejudices showing, I do hope so.

  6. Really great and honest post! I’ve finally taken Italy as it is: slow, a little backwards and a whole lot of crazy. I don’t get up in arms when things don’t go my way (anymore) Ill just try again tomorrow.

    • You’re so good. See, what I do… is I SAY that it’s ok and I’ll just try again tomorrow. Then I have a mental breakdown and collapse into an expat puddle. My husband has to clean it up, and he hates cleaning.

      • haha. Yeah, I’ve done that, and my husband pays no attention. So while I whittled away on the bathroom floor in tears he’s just telling me to get real. I finally got real, but still at times have an expat breakdown. Like today for example .. it’s really just too damn hot, I mean it’s the end of October for cryin out loud! My Canadian body can’t take it any longer, my internal clock is ready to hibernate but the weather outside is not cooperating and I just want to scream and cry!

        • oh my god. My Texan body is freeeeezing. Seriously, I’m wearing a scarf. At my desk.
          I had expat breakdown #2 for the week yesterday. I believe the tipping point was that I couldn’t find a nail and the hardware store is OF COURSE closed on a Thursday afternoon.


        • If I throw a wobbly about ‘Italian customer service’ my wife just says “Why are we living here in the first place? Lets move back to the UK” So I try not to complain to much

          • Never thought of taking her up on it?
            (sorry, don’t know why I’m just seeing these comments from you now!! )

  7. I use only the present tense and passatp prossimo as well. My accent is OK and I get by. I don’t want to study so I just have to progress slowly. After 10 years here I have mostly learned to ignore the stuff that I don’t like and enjoy the things I love. Expats can’t expect to change anything here and would not want Italians going to their country with lots of advice.
    I really like your perspective on Italian life.

  8. Great post, it look me 20minutes to get three keys cut today …….apparently conversation was to good to tear himself away (not with me though!!) deep breathing helps lol

  9. I think I love you! 😉 I’ve not long started reading your blog & I love your honesty & your humour. From all the way on the Gold Coast, Australia… I’m ‘dreaming’ of ‘one day’ living in Italy. I love that you tell it how it really is.. Thankyou so much for sharing.

    • oh my! (Don’t tell my marito – he gets so jealous!)
      Thanks for reading, Sonia. Your comment is MUCH appreciated!

  10. I have been here 6 years. I have completed two Italian courses. In the lessons, learnt that I am unlikely to master Italian. Mrs Sensible is threatening me with yet another 6 months at night school 😦

      • I like your self-diagnosis there – “unlikely to master Italian”. It sounds like something you get voted as when you graduate from high school.

        At least you’re trying! Did you graciously point that out to Mrs Sensible?
        Has your non-mastery hindered you?

          • She honestly thought I wanted minced dog… I could see the horror in her eyes. This was a little village, you know the type, lots of old ladies probably all related to one another.

            The lady who owned the corner shop once asked me how the English write numbers, were they the same as the Italian ones. Had Mrs Sensible not been employed as the local school teacher, I would have created some wonderful numbers for her, maybe a cross between Chinese, Egyptian and utter nonsense. But I knew I had to behave or face the wrath of Mrs Sensible 🙂 🙂

  11. I love reading your posts – they make me smile and remind me of many things me and my friends have experienced living here! However, there are many things I’ve read that I just don’t relate to, and that goes for many things that my friends moan about, too. Yes, you often have to wait to get things sorted… I just drop off my stuff and return later, or choose a morning when I know it won’t be so bad if I get nothing else done. Also, I’m usually late picking up my dry cleaning and the lady doesn’t mind one bit! I LIKE the fact that the famiglia always know someone who does something, it saves A LOT of energy and frustration trying to find someone! My commercialista and the ‘spurgo guys’ are so efficient and the coffee machine guys fixed the sink at work simply because it wasn’t working! AND they always offer me a coffee! I hardly ever have a problem with customer service and my neighbours are nice, but we fortunately don’t live with or near the famiglia, not sure I could do that… All of this is not to say I don’t complain and nothing drives me crazy (I have a whole heap of stories about Italian drivers…) but I seemingly find a way to focus on the positive things, including the food and the wine and the fact that if you’re 5 minutes late for work or your table reservation nobody cares! Keep your posts coming 🙂

    • Hi Helen, sorry for the delayed reply. Well, you’re pretty lucky that you can’t relate to some of those things! I have no idea HOW you got that lucky, but stick with it!

      You’re right – sticking to the positive things makes it all better. But it’s hard to laugh about lovely things, isn’t it? 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  12. Great and honest post, I can identify with so much you’ve said here. The only place I could complain was on my blog, that’s what it was for initially, definitely still is some days, but the folks back home never believe a word of it. You know… when you live 10 minutes from il Colosseo or have a view of a castle out your bedroom window. But don’t beat yourself up about the language courses, sounds like you’re doing just fine. I took two semesters in the beginning and I still can’t follow or tell a joke in Italian without making everyone wait way too long.

    • yeah, it’s the wait that’s painful. And you’re sitting there, wildly gesticulating to try and improve the punch line, and they just look at you with slight pity and slight awe.


  13. Babe, I had two full years of crazy depression “I hope the country gets blown up TOMORROW” days. It was not awesome. It gets better although I have pretty regularly shit days still. Less if I include back to back hobbies and non-stop hang out time.

    • It’s true – hobbies and non-stop hang out time do help.
      Here in Pigville, however, there’s not much hanging out going on. So I’ve had to invent hobbies. Unfortunately they morph into work, and then I’m just working all the time and I go insane.
      Constant battle.

  14. Hello,
    I am an Italian girl Who lives in Belgium so same as you but the other way around 🙂
    I understand perfectly you
    If there is somebody here who knows how the italians behave, think, etc. It is me, but anyway Being far away from “mia Puglia” I realize how much I miss my country even if I perfectly know how imperfect it can be
    So I try to take the advantage of being in a foreign country and see the best of it and I try of course to put a bit of my Italy (cooking for example) in my Belgian life 🙂

    • Hi Marie Lina, thanks for reading and commenting!

      Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I have always been super super critical of America, especially my home state of Texas… but man, I miss it! It will always be home.

      We’re very lucky to get these experiences living abroad because they open our eyes to so many greater cultural themes, which – in my belief – can only make you stronger and wiser in the long run.

      Keep up the positive outlook! An immigrant without a positive outlook is stranded in high water!

  15. I (we..my husband is British) have left Italy twice now and come back each time. I love your blog as you express EXACTLY what I feel/think. It s such a fine line to tread, living in Italy with an anglosaxon mind..that is picking up Italian habits. I did (with other like minded mantovani) manage to convince our local schools that saturday at school is akin to Xmas day at school and if the rest of the world ain’t doing it, there must be a reason why. Happily, 10 years later, almost all the schools in mantova, from 1st grade all the way through have adopted the stay at home saturday. With regards to the friends issue, I literally stopped mums in the street who I thought could be friends and, 10 years on, most still are! (Although am sure they think I have a few screws loose..or perhaps the fact that I am the “right” kind of foreigner let me get away with it…yes, racism is often alive and kicking here). And yet, and yet..despite knowing i will miss it like hell, the latest crap coming out of Campania (the buried toxic, nuclear waste under which all the wonderful things of the meditteranen diet grow and we then eat) has just about sent us over to the other side again. Grrrrr. But if I bitch about it to my friends too much, I have overstepped the “foreigner” rights (we ve been here for 15 yrs now). So I grit my teeth and focus on the many, many, many good things…

    • You’re responsible for Mantova Saturdays at home?! Please come to Reggio. Please.
      Yep, I know what you’re talking about. I’m also fairly certain everyone thinks I have a few screws loose (and perhaps I do!).

      I was having this conversation with another immigrant/expat woman yesterday (who is still in the very angry, rebellious phase) – I told her that if you spend you’re whole life attempting to change things too much, you risk ending up very bitter. It’s got to be a balance. Chose your battles and be reasonable. She accused me of settling.


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  18. Great post! I was cracking up reading this! I’ve obviously experienced all of it, although, I still haven’t given in to the in-laws. Their “help” usually involves trying to buy us a house of their choosing, and decorating our rented apartment in brown and orange because that’s what was available at the “Chinese store.”

    • hihihi. This made me giggle. We don’t have a “Chinese store” here. There was an “Indian store” but I think they got run out of town. There goes my source for any spice that’s not Italian.

      NEVER GIVE IN!!!

  19. I feel you when you felt like you are being judged by others when you go out for dinner. I mean, we all have this mindset of being judged whenever we are in a different place where everything seemed to be so strange and unfamiliar. It’s even harder to just mix yourself into a group which had already set their foundation. It’s definitely not easy to be an expat. You will need to learn new language or dialect, new tradition and culture and new people. And the learning process could be a bit long depending on your capability to adapt and survive. What’s great of being an expat is that you get a whole new experience and new friends as well.

  20. Oh my God, how I’ve been needing this blog. I’ve worked in Italy before and I’m considering trying to move there full time, but I’m blind, and even though in the States I’m very well-known in my field, the Italians seem to not want anything to do with me or my blindness. My husband and I are staying with friends in Parma in March, so I plan to continue ferretting out possible job opportunities. I’ll keep reading your blog– this has blready been extraordinarily helpful. Really, thank you.

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