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What’s it Like Living in Italy as an Expat: 15 Things You Should Know

Want to know what it’s really like living in Italy as an American? We sat down with Sam from AperiLife, who splits her time living in Florence with her Italian partner and flying back and forth to New York, to get the inside scoop on the reality of La Dolce Vita as an expat.

So, as an American, here are 15 things you need to know about living in Italy.

1. Have Patience With the Red Tape

No international move is without its bureaucracy, and Italy is no different. 

“I think everyone should just understand Italians are really, really, really on their own planet. There is a reason why Italy is the way that it is. It is not by accident.

You have to understand that the number one thing you can bring with you to Italy is patience because a lot of things are gonna happen and they’re not going to make any sense. 

“Italians are very much aware of the bureaucracy issues but they more or less don’t care about your input. You just have to be patient and it’ll happen. Italians are not going to move around to accommodate you.”

2. Appreciate the Slow Life

La Dolce Vita directly translates to the sweet life, but it might as well mean the slow life. The Italian pace is pretty glacial, giving you plenty of opportunities for mindfulness, meditation, and just appreciating everything around you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a busy city or just need a quick five minutes, Italians will make the time.

“I have my moments to myself. Even if you’re in the center, you have these moments of peace, which I guess people who live maybe in the Midwest might have more of, but I like peace and silence.

And I kind of create that in New York, where it can be a little more chaotic. I create my little haven and have my moments where I’m able to just be still and set my intention for the day.

“I make sure I have a nice hearty lunch and I sit down and actually look at my food, appreciate it, and take a moment for myself instead of the big hustle and bustle, where you grab something to eat and eat it in the car or at the desk. That was really common before I moved to Italy, not really taking a moment to appreciate the food that was in front of me.”

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3. Check the Various Visas

Italy is notoriously difficult when it comes to visa eligibility. Especially for US expats. Although Sam doesn’t live in Italy full-time, she has had some dealings with the visa process, back in COVID times. 

“I fly back and forth on a regular basis, so I still remain within the legalities of the Schengen agreement, although I did have a student visa during the pandemic because they were only allowing Americans in if you had essential reasons. 

“So, at one point in time, I did have a visa for studying and one of the more common ways is studying Italian.  I had already been living in Italy back and forth for about four years at that point in time, but I hadn’t had any formal Italian education. I fell in love with an Italian, but I didn’t fall in love with Italy. 

“Also there is the domestic partner visa, which a lot of people are taking advantage of right now, which will allow you to stay in Italy for over 90 days.”

4. It’s All About the Work/Life Balance

One of the major differences between living in the US and Italy is the work/life balance. In fact, this is probably one of the biggest lifestyle differences and reasons why people move here. You won’t see people killing themselves working 80-hour weeks or eating a sad lunch at their desks, alone. 

“The Italian priorities are completely different from the American priorities where we are looking to optimize our time and be as productive as possible. Italians are looking to enjoy life as much as possible. 

“The amount of time that Italians get off, even if they don’t have a lot of money, Italians will still take the time to go to the seaside. They will still take the time to go home and have lunch with their family. 

“Even going out, and enjoying wine and food, I feel like their culture says, it’s really important that you enrich your life and everyone deserves to eat well and enjoy nights out and to be able to afford it.”

5. Everything Stops for Lunch

Speaking of priorities, everything stops for lunch. It’s great but if you’re thinking about running errands to the bank or post office, think again. 

People eating in a restaurant.

“The banks are closed for lunch and they’re not going to rotate who goes on lunch first, everybody’s going to lunch, right? Same thing with the post office and a lot of places where they value making sure that they’re able to experience family and they’re not missing out on even the basics of life.”

6. Find Work Before You Go

If you’ve been looking at moving to Italy, then you probably already know that the job market out there isn’t great. Also, if you need to get a visa, the easiest way is to have a work visa, from a company that sponsors you. 

“Respect the immigration process. Being an expat is cool, but you know, if you plan to work in Italy, it’s something to definitely look into because getting work in Italy is not easy.”

7. Italy Had a Class Issue

As with many places across Europe that have or had a class system, it can be jarring if you’re from a country that doesn’t, like the US. Royalty used to be a thing in Italy and their descendants are still considered upper class.

Even as an American, you are considered a higher class than expats from other regions of the world, even other first-generation Italians, depending on their heritage. 

“As soon as they hear that you speak English, if you have a British accent or are just not African, you’re put up a little bit higher on the pedestal. And then that in turn, brings up the topic of classism in Italy, because that is something that is really big, that I don’t think enough people speak about. 

It’s the proper way that Italians separate the good from the bad or with who they wanna associate themselves. The way that nepotism works, you are able to continuously benefit from who your parents are and your lineage.”

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8. There is Racism in Italy, Just Like Everywhere Else

If you’re a person of color, you may have heard that racism is pretty bad in Italy. As a woman of color, partially living in Italy, this is Sam’s experience. While racism exists in Italy, Sam says it’s not violent, it’s more passive-aggressive or a lack of education around microaggressions.

“Is there racism in Italy? Let’s start there. Yes. There’s racism in Italy. The racism in Italy is handled, one as a woman, especially if you’re a woman of wealth with a man who is not of the same race as you, you’re looked at as a sugar baby, or maybe you are a woman of the night.

“The Black male experience is completely different because the majority of Italians if they see a successful Black male, they probably think they’re like an athlete. Those two things exist because of the lack of education. Italians don’t have a proper relationship with Black people of success.

You look at Italy, and there are not a lot of other places that speak Italian, so there isn’t that diversity that came with historic colonization, so the example of Black Italian excellence isn’t as apparent.

“So they’re able to live in this little small bubble with just Italians. So if you have a Black person that speaks Italian, typically they’re a refugee. That is the Italian experience with Black people. So there is that ignorance. 

“I also have to preface this and say that I’m an African American woman, and the African diaspora experience is completely different from the African American experience. But I have friends who are first-generation Italian and their parents are from Cameroon or from Congo or somewhere.

And even they say African Americans get treated better than actual Africans who have moved to Italy.

“I have experienced racism in Italy personally. You get followed in stores, predominantly like makeup stores where they think you’re gonna take something small or malls you’ll all of a sudden have a lot of help from the associates or something of that sort.

“People in Italy don’t really know of the little microaggressions that might offend me or might upset me. I’m very, I’m very much so aware of who I am in the skin that I live in.”

9. Some Places are More LGBTQ+ Friendly than Others

As Italy is a Catholic country, and sort of home to the Pope, there are a lot of questions about whether it’s safe to travel or live in Italy as someone from the LGBTQ+ community. 

“There are places where it’s much more friendly and accepted and they feel more comfortable kind of showing affection to people of the community, but there are still really small villages where you do have some issues and things that people are just not used to. I haven’t heard of anyone having a violent experience, but there may be comments or looks.

“Last summer we went to an area where it was known that all the gay guys went and they were free and having a great time, just like, I would see in New York, and then when we were on the island of Salina, it was something, really similar.

“A lot of the gay people I’ve met living in Italy go to places that have accepted them. When they’re not in places that have accepted them or taken the time to understand them, it seems like they still enjoy themselves, but they aren’t as PDA-heavy.

There isn’t any kissing, it’s just two guys having dinner. So I think everyone’s just much more aware of whether an area is properly educated or not.”

10. The Food Quality is Amazing

Another major reason that expats move to Italy is for the cuisine and the abundance of fresh produce. With Sam flying back and forth, she’s definitely noticed some things about herself and her palate, especially when she’s back in New York.

“Well, I’m definitely much more of a coffee snob now. We do make our olive oil, so I make sure that I have a really great olive oil selection here at my place in New York.

When I travel, I definitely am much more familiar with wine, and I think that also comes from wine being much more affordable in Italy. So if you’re coming to Italy, look at the menu, try something different because it’s much more affordable.”

foods on the table and wine glasses

11. Cooking is a Love Language

With food being such a huge part of Italian culture, it should come as no surprise that the act of cooking for someone is a massive sign of love and appreciation – something that Sam has picked up from her Italian partner. 

“Italians show their love by cooking. So, sharing a meal is like ‘I’m gonna give you some of something that I love. I love this pasta.’.

The relationship between how Italian parents are with their kids versus how American parents are, Italians are much more hands-on, but Americans have the mental connection, which I think Italians kind of miss out on a little bit.

I think they focus so much on the action that it just seems like a routine, rather than communication. Soon the cooking as an act of love gets overwritten by, ‘Oh it’s time for lunch’.

12. But Don’t Expect to Talk About Your Feelings…

So, this brings us to the lack of communication. Although Italians are famous for being romantic and talking a lot, Sam’s experience is that when it comes to breaking down the big stuff, Italians aren’t super into it. 

“When we do sit down, I do the American thing of having a complete conversation about How do you feel? What’s going on in your mental state? Are you, you know, are you stressed? What can I do to help?

Like, that’s the balance to the more action-based love that Italians give. You don’t really see that verbal check-in style much with the Italians. It’s all about the gesture.”

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13. Traditional Values are a Thing

Again, with the Catholic church and the Pope both being huge presences in Italian culture, you can expect that traditional values are respected in much of Italy. That being said, it’s not as restrictive or imposing as you might seem.

“It seems like most Italians will go and get baptized and christened. It’s those kinds of things that you should do to be a good Italian and go to heaven, but it’s not all Italians.

“Because Italy has its root values if the politician says something like, “well, I think that it shouldn’t take five years for a divorce. I think we can at least settle on two years or something like that.”

If the church says something, then there’s normally a good Catholic versus bad Catholic kind of debate. So I think when it comes to the church’s influence, I think politicians try to stay out of it unless they’re trying to get voters.”

14. Family is Everything

With such traditional values and emphasis on work/life balance, family is everything in Italy. It’s part of the reason that life expectancy is so long – everyone looks out for each other. Even though the birth rate isn’t super high, when there are children around it’s a huge gift. 

“Children are just so appreciated in Italy. In the States, people are hiding their children’s faces because they don’t want the internet to bash their kids.

a family standing in the beach

In Italy, everyone protects the kids and they make sure that their faces are blurred out or that there are adults around. It should be like that anyway, after all, they’re just kids, but it’s good to see out here.

“Family time is really important. Even when my partner is really busy, he’s still like, okay, let’s have lunch. There’s never a moment where I have to eat lunch at the computer or I have to run here and get all this done. There’s that importance of being together.”

15. Check Out Your Areas Before You Commit

Of course, every place is different in Italy. There’s not even just the North/South divide, from region to region, you’re likely to experience big differences.

Maybe you want to live in the city, or maybe you prefer rural areas. Just because you like visiting a place doesn’t mean that you want to settle down there. 

“Visit Italy several times before you say you want to live in Italy. There are a lot of different regions with a lot of differences and you should really look into where you would want to move to. Just because you enjoyed going to the Colise, does it mean that you wanna live right near it?

Even Italians don’t tend to move away that much. When my partner left home, it was to study because during that time his home region of Puglia didn’t have a university. So he decided that he was going to live in Milano, and then do things in Florence, but it was a big deal to his family.

Italian families like to help each other out and use nepotism for good, but if your kid moves to somewhere where the family doesn’t have connections, it’s like, ‘why are you leaving? I can’t help you there.’”

A Final Word on Living in Italy as an Expat from Sam…

“Moving to a different country with a different culture does mean that they’re going to be a lot of things that you have to understand is normal there. 

“Italy is really wonderful. It’s a great place to visit. It’s a great place to spend time, but it does have its flaws. And, I think people should understand that it’s not perfect. So that’s really it.”

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