Starting Out - Fitting In
You can drive yourself crazy trying to settle into a different country and culture. Even if you end up as one of those who made themselves content and easy with their surroundings, you will undoubtedly have rocky periods and times when you are convinced you chose wrong. Your rocks will be different from the rocks others hit as they tried to come ashore, or may be the same, but they are there waiting for you.
How can you minimize your problems? What can you learn from others who came before you? There’s a lot of information out there. Who has it right? What about conflicting ideas or even facts? How about the fact that the various Italian official government sites have different requirements for foreigners?
What can you do?
The requirements you must fulfill are those of the consulate you have to use. If you are a double-safe organizer, then check all of the consulates and get together all of the documents and information they all want. You can only look overeager and prepared.
Get your home country affairs in order. Talk to a manager in your bank about what they will and will not allow you to do online, and what their charges will be for services, wires, checks and ATM cards. If it sounds expensive, interview some other banks and see if you can do better. Just getting fee-free ATM withdrawals can save you quite a lot each year. Free transfers of funds to pay credit cards in your home country are safer and cheaper.
Find out what investments you may legally own if you are a foreign resident. There are some that are not legal. Find out what the charges may be if you need to liquidate part and have the funds sent to your home country bank. Reinvest if you have to.
Find out what your tax reporting situation will be with your native country. See what services exist or don’t exist in Italy. Things recently changed for US citizens, for example. Have a look at your country’s embassy website in Rome. You can even read the tax treaty between the two countries. Hmmm.
Find out if your existing health insurance will cover you for the period when you are not covered under your new, foreign healthcare. If it doesn’t, shop around for an expatriate insurance policy that will adequately care for you until you have other coverage.
Set up communications with relatives and friends. Informal communications will just happen, but in case of anything important, there should be one person you can trust to get information to others. That person needs a lot of information about you and your connections before you leave. In the same way, everybody important to your life ought to know who it is who knows where you are at any time.
If that person is really close, like a parent or a child, you may consider limited power-of-attorney for certain purposes. Only you can know what those might be, but if you are single, someone needs to have rights to take care of emergencies, and even couples may think it is a good idea.
These are all basic arrangements that will keep things from weighing on your mind or jumping up and becoming problems when you have so much to think about in your new home.
Just at Expats in Italy there is a ton of information I didn’t have before I came. Find it, read it, use it. Look up other sites and see what they have that is different to Expats in Italy. Read some of the books recommended on the sites.
Things work differently here. When you get you and your home registered, tax and contribution bills don’t just start coming. You have to find which place to denounce for each tax or contribution and then go do it. Ask your real estate agent, if you have one. No one knows that your system is different, and they won’t tell you what to do if you don’t ask. If you don’t denounce yourself and pay, you will end up paying a huge bill for months or even years of services, late fees and interest or even fines. The only bills you can count on getting are utilities and phone. Once you get a car, you must pay the bollo every year according to a date printed in the documents that come with the car. Don’t forget this.
My recommendation is to keep a tax calendar in your diary/dayplanner, highlighting the period in which you can legally pay these things. You can do most of that before you even step into the country.
An insurance “ticket” has to be displayed in the front of your car. Keep it up to date. Local police frequently have roadblocks with the sole purpose of checking that ticket. See if you qualify for home country insurance and if that will save you some money.
Do whatever it takes to learn as much Italian as you can as quickly as you can. Every part of your life will be complicated or compromised if you can’t ask questions and understand answers.
Be excited and think of the great things about Italy. You may need to remind yourself about these over the preparatory time and the first year or so. It is a wonderful place and worth the trouble, but that idea can be overwhelmed when you are lonely, cold or troubled and can’t figure out the next step.
There will be people who are not happy about your expatriation. Some will be generous about it and try to be excited with you. Some will be doomsayers and get angry and even mistreat you. They are a small part of your world. My philosophy is to stay firm, be kind to them, but consider it their problem, not yours.
Most of all, do not believe all the crazy things they tell you about third world conditions and criminals on every corner.
As soon as you arrive, start living here, not there.
Everything is different. From toilets to breakfast, it is all new. You will hardly recognize a thing in the grocery store. The hours that things are open are different. What people do when they aren’t working is different.
It is not better or worse, it is different. Forget about how it was done at home. You will not change a thing about the system. Ask people to explain things you don’t understand, but do not criticize out of hand when you don’t really yet know what the score is. You may not like how garbage collection is organized here, but just go with it, because if you complain it might just be that person’s uncle who is in charge.
Don’t be an expert on Italian politics, religion or social mores. Once you are as assiduous a reader of newspapers as Italians are, you might venture to have an opinion, but these folks are very astute and informed. At best you will only make yourself look stupid if you take off on what Prodi did back then or what D’Alema said before Parliament. All three of the above subjects are complicated and intertwined and there are as many passionate opinions as there are Italians. There are more political parties in Italy than there are freeways. Coalitions shift and change.
Social uses in one town may differ a lot from the next. Big cities are even more different. Religion is in everything, constitutionally separated from the state, observed twice in a lifetime by almost everybody, and completely unimportant to most daily lives. Ask, don’t tell.
Get around your area as much as you can. Attend local sagre, festivals, and concerts and do the passeggiata if there is one. Become a familiar face. Chat a bit when you can. Greet people politely whose faces you know. Join something if you can figure out what there is. I joined a local Italian-expat club and the members, although the club is almost defunct now, are still the core group of my acquaintances.
Let Italians set the pace. Friendship is a different thing here. It happens slower, isn’t instantly intimate and it means a lot if you finally establish it. Most people will continue to be conosciuti (acquaintances) forever. That’s fine and you do need them. Over time you and a few others will be real amici (friends.) A friend will treat you like a relative and whatever he has in the way of influence, contacts and status will be yours. That’s a really big deal here. Where I came from if you knew someone over a period of time you would call him a friend.
They were sort of graded, but they were all friends. Here a friend will bail you out of jail, no questions asked, or drive you to a distant city and take the day off work to do it. It is not a small thing!
Feelings are valid
When you feel lonely, homesick, frustrated and angry, indulge yourself. This is a big thing you are doing.
It rates for stress up there with divorce and death of a loved one. If you stuff down your emotions, you won’t manage them. You have the right to feel bad sometimes, and the duty to yourself to allow yourself to feel that way. Then, when you can get up off the bed, get out and do something Italian and good. It will pass.
Everybody seems to have a thing or two that they just can’t stand about wherever they are. That is in spite of the fact that Italians are overwhelmingly kind and generous. I was just this moment interrupted by my neighbor at the door bearing fresh eggs, and yesterday she came with green beans and aubergines.
Staring comes up a lot. Driving habits comes up even more. Italians quite often have a different view of what’s on time. They bring unexpected guests with them when you invite them. They do not write or phone thank yous for gifts. Whatever it is that bugs you, it is valid for you. You won’t change it. You must live with it. You can bitch about it with your expat friends if you like, but don’t be surprised if they retell the story. On the other hand, there is hardly a person in Italy who wants to shoot you, not for anything you have or for anything you represent, and that’s worth a fair amount of irritation over a different etiquette.
When you feel happy, smile. It is not the Italian way, but do it anyway. Many may think I am a grinning idiot, but a lot of them talk to me when I am happy in public.
Many Italians don’t. You should. It is said that the entire country is a treasure house thirty meters deep.
I believe it. Much of the difficulty of adjusting to a new life and a new culture will be ameliorated by letting yourself be dazzled by this country. From sea to shining sea, from kitchen to kitchen, from piazza to piazza, Italy is an absolute wonder. Eat it up.
When for the fourth time you didn’t get mail you expected, when for the tenth time your grocer says they just won’t carry the Italian product you want, when you sit for an hour and a half waiting to see the doctor, the images you’ve stored and the next discovery you plan to make will carry you through.
And the wine is cheap.
This article was submitted by one of the members of our forum Expat Talk.
It is her personal experience in the process.