OK, so it’s time for another “useful” post. I’ve just had a look at my last few articles and realized that it’s been a while since I’ve written anything of actual value for you, my loyal readers—especially those of you who dream of the living in Italy. But if you’re one of those folks who only read my blog in the hope of having a good laugh at my expense, this isn’t one of those posts. So you might want to re-read my encounters with the malocchio or even more tragic, the Italian bureaucracy.
So today I’ll address a mixed bag of practical topics on living in Italy as an expat.
First thing to know: get used to NOT using your credit card for every day purchases. Of course Rome is a big city and a major tourist destination, so it is easier here than the rest of the country. Still, most U.S. credit card companies charge a significant foreign transaction fee, so it would be to your advantage to get out of the habit of using plastic for everything. Back in the States, I’d use a credit card for everything, even a $2.50 coffee at Starbucks.
Checks are uncommon, too, and even more cumbersome for a foreigner who must show I.D. (usually a passport) each time. Even then, good luck. And can anyone even recall the procedure for using traveler’s checks? Do they still issue those?
Furthermore, I wouldn’t suggest trying to set up an Italian bank account—at least not until you’re sure that you’ll be staying for longer than a year. Even then, my inclination is to avoid an Italian bank account. The Italian banking system is much more restrictive than in the U.S. and typically loaded with procedural red tape. And instead of paying interest on your money, they expect YOU to pay a fee to park your money in their bank! Not to mention those annoying air-locked security doors that you have to pass through each time.
Instead, what I would recommend is working with an American bank before your leave. Talk to them and ask about their foreign transaction fees and ATM charges. I use a Charles Schwab High-Yield Checking Account and it allows me to use European ATMs with no transaction fees and no exchange premium. And if the European bank charges you to use their ATM (in Rome they don’t), Schwab will reimburse you at the end of the month.
The checking account must be linked to a brokerage account that requires a minimum $1,000 starting balance. But after the brokerage account is opened, you can transfer that money into your checking account the next day and use it as you see fit. There is no minimum balance after the initial deposit in either account. This has proved to be a very easy, convenient solution for me and I would highly suggest looking into it. (NOTE: I am not affiliated with Charles Schwab Bank in any way, and so my advice is merely based on my own anecdotal experience and that of others whom I’ve talked to.)
I’ve gotten a few inquiries lately about Internet service in Rome (and Italy in general). The good news: the Internet service is better than the postal service. For the bad news, read my previous post about the Italian postal service.
Simply put, Internet providers in Italy are about as reliable as the politicians and priests. They’ll make you promises, fill you with hope, but then ultimately leave you disappointed. If you want ADSL installed in your apartment, you’d better have some patience. (Fortunately, if you’ve been waiting for your Permesso di Soggiorno, it’s likely you’ve already cultivated this virtue.)
The Italian telecommunication market is dominated by Telecom Italia, the former state-owned monopoly. Although users can now choose from other service providers, almost all fixed-line hardware is provided by Telecom Italia. But yes, they also offer high-speed Internet with an ADSL package, and you can get your land-line telephone and Internet at a monthly fixed rate. In theory.
These days there are many other providers besides Telecom Italia (for example Infostrada), offering a confusing range of telecommunication services. Unfortunately, these companies are usually even less reliable than Telecom, if you can believe that. For this reason, many people choose not to get a fixed line at all, and instead use their mobile connection for both phone calls and internet access. This is what I opted to do. I’ve used “3” and they’re decent…not super-fast, of course, but good enough for email, Facebook, etc. And pretty cheap, too, at 19 Euro a month. And while they put limits on how much you can download, I’ve never once exceeded my limit.
Here are some recent offers from various companies:
Before you opt for this solution, however, you should first check the signal strength in your area, which you can do here: http://opensignal.com/
Getting around town
If at all possible, avoid ever driving a car in Rome. Just don’t do it. It’s not that the drivers are all murderous psychopaths–which of course they are—but the problem is that eventually you become one of them. I drove a car in Rome during my first six months in town and then wisely opted to preserve what little was left of my sanity over the marginal “convenience” of owning a vehicle. (On the plus side, my vocabulary of Roman expletives improved dramatically during that period. In the beginning, they were all directed AT me, but once I got the hang of it, I quickly made up for the imbalance. I never would have thought myself capable of shifting gears, talking on my cell phone, and making obscene gestures at the same time. As it turns out, I can.)
But even if, by some miracle of divine intervention, you successfully run the gauntlet and arrive home safely, you’ll spend another 30-40 minutes looking for a place to park before giving up and leaving your car on the sidewalk like everybody else. ‘Sti cazzi!
So then anyone who’s seen one too many movies about Italy will have the big idea to just get a scooter/Vespa/motorino. This is actually a great idea—if you have lost your job, not to mention all hope—and want to leave a big life insurance settlement to your next of kin. It’s not a direct method of killing yourself; it’s suicide by proxy, so technically your insurance carrier will still be obliged to pay the claim to your beneficiaries.
Seriously, this is not something that the uninitiated should attempt without proper training. Instead, if you really want to channel Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, then hook up with one of the tour companies that offer this sort of experience. Check out Scooteroma. They’ll keep you safe and you can enjoy this unique way to see all the famous sites of Rome. But unless “romanaccio” is your first language, don’t rely on this for transportation.
However, if I still haven’t convinced you and you’re determined to donate your organs while they’re still viable for medical science, then you’ll have other obstacles to conquer beyond the kamikaze Fiat drivers. I’m referring, of course, to the bureaucracy involved in getting a motorino license.
In January of 2013 they changed the law and now the once beloved Patentino (mini-license used for scooters) no longer exists. You now must go through basically the same useless autoscuola as every other would-be assassin on the road. For those in Rome, all the info can be found here: Motorizzazione
Once in a while you’ll need to get a document notarized in Italy. To the American readers, this may not sound like a big deal. In the States, anyone can be a notary and almost everyone has a friend, relative, or co-worker who can easily perform this task gratis. Or else you can seek out the services of a random notary and pay a very small fee.
Not so in Italy. For some reason, notary services are big business. And not only that, the fees for these services are highly variable and completely subjective. Jess and I needed to get a document notarized for our wedding, and then discovered they required almost an entire month’s rent to sign their name on a piece of paper.
Of course, this same service can also be performed for free at the local Comune…IF you don’t mind waiting six months or so. At least in Rome.
For Americans, the best solution for most tasks is to use the U.S. Embassy. You can easily make an appointment via the website and have it done there. Here’s the page for notary services. The appointment links are at the bottom of the page.
A call out
Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember back to my first days in Rome and recalling the biggest challenges that I encountered during that time. Certainly, the Permesso di Soggiorno was number one and I’ve covered that nightmare at length in several other posts, or use the form above this paragraph to get the free step-by-step guide. But beyond that, what are some of YOUR lingering questions concerning living in Italy? Leave your comments below and perhaps I’ll take them up in a future post. Of course, they must meet my criteria of providing adequate material for sarcasm and ridicule.