Americans Living in Italy and How to Live La Dolce Vita

Americans Living in Italy

I came across a discussion a couple weeks ago in a Facebook Group called Americans Living in Italy. There was nothing terribly remarkable about this particular thread—its themes were common in this debate: the frustrating challenges of American expats dealing with life in Italy. I guess if anything made this post somewhat unique was that it was mostly civil, and the insults were minimal from both sides.

fontana nettuno romeHowever, it also carried a bit more credibility, for a few reasons. First of all, the post’s original author was a disillusioned Italian-American—BUT he grew up speaking Italian with his native-born Italian parents, so he was not totally clueless when he arrived (like I was). Secondly, he lives in The Veneto, so the Italian stereotypes associated with “only” Southern Italy are not valid. Third, he has a good job; a rare condition among American expats in Italy. Lastly, although he used the caps-lock more than necessary, his tone was generally balanced, and he seemed sincerely interested in helping fellow Americans avoid a catastrophic, life-altering decision.

I’ve been back in the US full-time for a while now, which I think gives me some perspective on this debate. For what it’s worth, I’d like to offer some humble advice to my fellow Italy-obsessed Americans thinking of making the leap, and suggest some tips on how to do it right—because I think it CAN be done right—where you fully enjoy the fantasy while acknowledging the uncomfortable realities that you’re forced to confront when transitioning from tourist to expat.

Preparation is the Key

This is common advice, but so often it is ignored, even when repeatedly encountered by several credible sources. Why is it ignored? Well, let’s just say that the romance begins to lose its appeal when you start giving credence to logic and reason. So much more fun to throw caution to the wind and—make the leap!

permesso di soggiornoBut no, as appealing as that sounds, you’ll actually enjoy your experience a lot more if you first do a little tedious check-listing.

Number one is getting your visa in order. Don’t even let yourself daydream until you’re well on your way to acquiring this “Holy Grail.” I’ve written a few posts about the Schengen Visa and the Permesso di Soggiorno. As boring as it is, get the paperwork done fully and correctly before you sign the lease on that Tuscan villa.

Doing the paperwork will force you to address the number two item on the list: your finances. Do NOT make the mistake of assuming that you’ll find work in Italy. You won’t. You can teach English, yes, but I’ve actually had some readers ask me if they’ll be able to advance their career in Italy! Ha! Unless you’re an uber-skilled scientist (or better, a soccer player or supermodel), you’re not offering any skills that 10,000 out-of-work Italians aren’t already offering. And they speak the language. And have connections. And (unfortunately) will probably work for less money than you.

So that leaves you with the following general options:

  1. Be an underpaid Au Pair or English teacher. Actually, it’s not bad. I taught for a couple years, and it is fun. Just barely pays the bills, but it’s fun.
  2. Get hired by an American (or possibly Italian) company before you go. This doesn’t happen often, but opportunities exist with some U.S. companies doing business in Italy.
  3. Create your own (virtual) job in the U.S., and take it with you to Italy. This usually involves some sort of freelance online activity like web development, graphic design, writing, etc. This path offers the most possibilities, and if you want to go this route, I can work with you to help.
  4. Live off your pension or other passive income. If you’re in this category, then don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

(*Note that options 1 & 3 are technically illegal with an Elective Residency Visa.)

The next obstacle is healthcare coverage. Yes, Italy has “free” healthcare for its citizens and residence, and as an expat you can also opt-in to the system for annual premium. But it’s also worth checking out expat insurance, as it is generally better coverage and much cheaper than equivalent coverage in the U.S.

With respect to the author of the Facebook post, he’s way off base on this one. He argued that U.S healthcare is better. Sure, you can always find isolated examples of bad (or good) medicine anywhere. But the ultimate measure of the quality of healthcare is—wait for it…wait for it—the health of the people living under a given system (and the percentage of their income sacrificed to achieve it). By that standard, there is absolutely no contest. It’s not even close. Italy’s healthcare system is light-years ahead of the American one.

Americans living in Italy

Even once you’ve cleared the above bureaucratic hurdles, you’ll still have the culture shock to deal with. A sciopero (transportation strike) might make for an amusing travel story from your vacation, but it’s no fun when you’re trying to get to work in the rain.

Americans Living in Italy

It looks perfect from the balcony of a nice apartment, no?

To dampen the jolt, wading slowly into the shallow end of the culture is the best approach for most. By that, I mean connecting with one of the expat groups in your city. For me, it was Expats Living in Rome, who helped me in many ways. You won’t feel as isolated, and they’ll share some local knowledge with you to help avoid the most common missteps.

Further, if you’re new to Italy and wish to temporarily preserve your sanity, create an insular environment where Italian idiosyncrasies can’t (often) touch you. Establish a physical and psychological buffer zone, gazing daily at La Dolce Vita from your flower-covered balcony. Venture out to experience the best of Italia when you like, then retreat to your protective bunker again when things get unbearably disorganized (and they will).

Good Wi-Fi is essential (for most of us), in order to remain connected to “civilization” as needed. Which, hopefully, wouldn’t be too often, because let’s face it, civilization is overrated. We come to Italy to escape that, hoping for the idyllic past, right? Well, news flash, it’s mostly gone—but remnants still exist, and they exist in sufficient quantity to fulfill your fantasy if you help it along a bit. Just make sure to squint a little, intentionally blurring your vision so that the ugly details won’t spoil your masterpiece painting. (Is that garbage next to Bernini’s fountain, or ornamental landscaping?)

history of Sicilian foodAnd some things are truly and unequivocally better in Italy, fantasy version or not. The food, of course. Note to U.S. expats: STOP pining for Mexican-American food! Just stop. Somebody mentions their “cravings” in everyone of these Facebook rants. You’re in Italy, for Christ sake. Cultivate some refined tastes, at least for cuisine. It’s like moving to Germany and being nostalgic for Pabst Blue Ribbon. Uffa…

CLICK HERE to download my free restaurant guide.

Then there’s the history, the art, the scenery… all of this creates the ambiance of “la dolce vita” that we’re all craving. Who wouldn’t? Even the Italians are enamored by our rose-colored view of their country.

In other words, if you’re truly able to achieve and sustain that level on self-delusion (it IS possible, I’ve done it, and it’s wonderful), then Italy is absolutely the best place in the world to live.

I should probably end it here, because that is exactly my point: Italy CAN live up to the hype, but it will require a good bit of assistance from you personally. Expecting too much of the fantasy to be handed to you is a recipe for disappointment.

If you’re interested in the Facebook post and subsequent rants that inspired this article, pour yourself a Campari cocktail, and spend a few minutes scrolling through the debate. Good arguments are made on both sides (as well as plenty of nonsense in between).

Americans Living in Italy

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Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

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