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Frequently Asked Questions

1 DVD, VCR, TV, etc.2. Small appliances?
3. Dryers
4. Washing machines
5. Garbage disposals
6. TV in English?
7. Calcare/Lime Scale
8. Hard to find products
9. Post office or FedEx/UPS/etc.
10. Where is the kitchen?
11. Screens?
12. Stiff clothes?
13. Washing machines?
14. Bill paying?
15. Nasty smells?

Question 1. Can I bring my DVD, VCR, TV, etc. from the U.S. and will they work?

The answer is yes and no. In Italy we work on 220 v electricity and the U.S. is 110 v. To run electrical items you will need a transformer that will change the voltage. This is not always the best thing to do to your electrical equipment. Some things are not affected but others, like CD players, do not turn at the right speed so everything will be a little off. Also, in Italy we watch TV on the PAL system while in the US they use the NTSC system. If you ever want to watch Italian TV you would need to either make sure your TV is one that plays a multi system or buy an converter. The best advice I could give is to sell all of your media equipment and buy new here. When buying a VCR, make sure you get one that plays back multi system (PAL and NTSC). This way you can watch tapes either from Italy or those you brought with you from the states. DVD players are a little more complicated. Not only is there the PAL NTSC problem but there is also the problem of regions. In the US, the region is 1 and in Europe it is 2. So you will need to get a DVD player that will play multi system and multi region. One great thing about DVDs is that if you buy them in Italy you can still watch them in English as they all have the original language track.

Question 2. Can I bring all of my small appliances?

As above, yes you could but you will probably need a transformer. Some items though do have a 110/220 switch so check it out. If this is the case then you will probably only need a plug converter.

North American power is 120V 60 cycles. European is 220V 50 cycles. The voltage can be dealt with easily with a step down transformer but the cycles can cause problems.

Check the back of the device. You'll see something like

  • 120V/60 this may work it may not. You're taking a risk.
  • 120V/50-60 this should work just fine with a step down transformer
  • something like 110-240v 50-60 This should work just fine. You may need to flip a switch or you may need a new plug.

One thing 60 cycles is used for is timing clocks. Older clocks will not keep time with 50 cycles.

Question 3. I always see people hanging their clothes out to dry. Do they not have dryers in Italy?

Yes there are dryers but they come into normal usage very recently. There are 2 types, either vented or condensation. For the vented ones you will need to make a hole in the wall, window or door going to the outside. Because of this where you put the dryer is very important. I have one that works with condensation. At the end of the cycle you need to empty the water from the condensation drawer. Dryers here are not run on gas but on regular electricity so look for one that is energy friendly. Also, make sure you find one with a large enough drum. The first dryer I had, the drum was so small that everything came out terribly wrinkled. I now have a Bosch Maxx and I love it. It has a sensor for the dryness so you can have it set to Ready to Iron, Normal or other options. Then it shuts off when it gets to the right point but does one spin a minute for an hour so nothing gets too wrinkled from sitting. You can stack this dryer on top of a Bosch Maxx washing machine.

Question 4. Don't they have top loading machines in Italy?

Yes they do but the front loading are much better for your clothes and they use a lot less water. Make sure you get an energy friendly one and one that has many options. Normally washing machines here are not hooked up to the hot and cold water lines. They just have one tube in and so the washing machine has to heat the water to the right temperature. This is why a load of whites can take 2.5 hours in an Italian washing machine. To cut the time but not the cleaning, buy a Y valve at the hardware store and hook one line to the hot and one to the cold. Just remember to turn on the hot when you need it.

Question 5. I miss my garbage disposal. Can I buy one in the states and bring it over?

You can find great garbage disposals made by Franke in Italy. There are other brands but this is the best in my opinion. They are called tritta rifiuti in Italian. The biggest problem you will have is finding a plumber that knows how to install them.

Question 6. Is there any way to get TV in English?

There are two ways. One way, the easy way, is to sign up with Sky Italia (Italian Satellite providers). You will then be able to watch a couple of English station (CNN, Fox, BBC Prime, and a few others) as well as having the option to watch in the original language on some channels. The second way is more difficult and not exactly totally above board but it is done and has been done for years. This other way is getting Sky Digital from the UK. Here you will have to buy a decoder and get a viewing card but if you get the family package for example you will have over 100 channels to watch. There are also 12 movie channels. You will be able to see shows like E.R., Friends, Six Feet Under, Law & Order, Frasier, Will & Grace, 24, Buffy, Angel, Sex and the City, and many many more as this is just off of the top of my head. You can either try to ask the sat dealers in your area or find an online source. Here is a great FAQ about Sky in Europe.

Question 7. Why do my faucet and sink always have a white chalky coating on them?

Ah the joys of lime scale or calcare as it is called in Italian. Italy seems to have the worst problem with this that I have ever seen. You will find many different types of liquids to fix this problem. Because the water is so hard you will tend to use at least twice the normal amount of soap as is needed. The expense of the soap, lime scale cleaners and the stress that is put on all machines that use the water (washing, dishwasher, iron, coffee, etc.) is just not worth it. You can buy adolcificatore which are water softening machines. We got ours from Culligan (yes I called the Culligan man) along with a water purifier for drinking water and now use 1/3 of the amount of soap as before and my tiles and glass shower doors sparkle. It is worth the extra money at the beginning if at all possible to do.

Question 8. Why can't I find brown sugar and other products here?

The short answer is who knows? There are many things that are more difficult or impossible to find. Brown sugar like in the U.S. is not available but there are a few types from the UK that look close to perfect so if you can find that then go for it. Do not use Zucchero di Canna as this is just raw sugar and will not be the same. Here is a list of the things that you may want to bring with you or have people send (will discuss this subject in question 9) although some items may be found in some parts of Italy:

    • Fabric Softener Sheets
    • Brown Sugar
    • Chocolate Chips (Butterscotch and Peanut Butter as well)
    • Baking powder*
    • Antiperspirant/Deodorant (they do not have lots of antiperspirants here and are hard to find)
    • Tylenol, Motrin, Advil, etc.
    • Desitin if you have babies
    • Real ethnic food ingredients
    • Marshmallows
    • Tumms
    • Jello
    • Pudding mixes
    • Some candies (like peanut butter cups)
    • Manila file folders
    • Scrapbooking items
    • Ziplock Bag

      * Baking powder here comes in little packets called Lievito per dolci. It works okay but a lot of it has vanilla flavoring added to it. If you need it for Biscuits or other savory things you are better off sticking to the stateside brands of double acting powder.

Question 9. I hear the Italian post office is really bad, should I just use UPS/Fedex to have stuff sent to me?

NO! The post office is fine now. It went partially private a couple of years ago and is really wonderful. If you are having things sent from the U.S., the best way is to send via the U.S. Post. Either do International registered mail which normally takes about 15 days or International 72 hour express which really takes 4 days because of the time difference. When you have the person fill out the custom's form, make sure they write gift and used items. Never ever write medicines or vitamins. Make sure that they do not include the receipts as if they open a box and find the receipts for the contents, they can charge custom's charges.

Question 10. I rented an unfurnished apartment via the internet. When I arrived the place didn't have a kitchen, closets, or light fixtures. Can I get my money back?

Probably not. Unfurnished in Italy means nothing but the walls, toilet, wiring and pipes. You have to do everything else. What you need to do to start off with is to take measurements of your kitchen, your bathroom and your bedrooms. Next step is to design a rough idea of what you want in the way of cabinets, work spaces, closets, etc. Stoves are normally 60 or 90 cm. in width, sinks are 60, 90 or 120 cm., refrigerators are normally 60 cm although you can now find wonderful large ones. Everything is also 60 cm. deep so plan accordingly. If you get these things at IKEA though, the sizes may differ. Once you have the info you need, head on out to a store that sells kitchens and other household goods. You can discuss your ideas with them but don't let them push their ideas on to you. The first kitchen I got the owner of the store kept telling me the kitchen would be ugly the way I wanted it but he was very old fashioned Tuscan and he did not like the idea of a breakfast bar to divide the kitchen from the living room. When it was finally installed it looked great! Delivery takes around 6 weeks normally and a day or 2 to install. For light fixtures, buy them all then hire an electrician (elettricista) to install them. A plumber (idraulico) will normally be needed to hook up your kitchen sink and any gas lines (for the stove or oven).

Question 11. Why are there no screens on the windows?

If you are in a long-term rental or own your own home, you may wish to invest in DIY screens, which can be purchased at any well-equipped mesticheria or ferramenta, DIY or large hardware store. Ask for a zanzariera (pronounced "tzan-zari-ehra"). These come in two sizes (medium and huge) and cost about 60 euros each. They consist of a roll-up system that you install at the top of the window frame, and two channels that you screw into the sides of the frame, down which the metal screen rolls and clicks into place. It took an engineer, an architect and a lawyer four hours to install our first one, but after that the job gets easier. You will need a saw that cuts through metal to make it fit your window, and an electric drill to install it, with bits appropriate to the material of which your window frame is made (mine are stone). If you are not construction-inclined, see if you can find a "fa-tutto", a handyman, to do it for you.

If you are even less inclined to play with drills and saws, you can opt for temporary measures. Large supermarkets and mesticherie may carry soft mosquito net kits that mount with two sided tape and velcro. (Try a large Esselunga and look in the insect and gardening section during the summer months.) I have been known to travel with one of these screen kits to beach and rental homes! They come in a small plastic package with everything inside. If you have to ask for this at a store, try asking for a "zanzariera che si attacca con lo scotch", and you will probably get the right object. These can be mounted and dismounted in 5 minutes and provide adequate protection, though may block the view a bit. They also might not work if your window swings or rotates in an odd way.

If you are still being "bugged", you can get an out-of-africa looking "zanzariera per il letto" in stores that sell bedding. The mosquito net that hangs from a hook in the ceiling and cascades over your bed seems romantic at first, but after you trip your way out of bed for the Nth time when you go pee in the night, you will wish you'd opted to install proper screens on the window.

Question 12. Why are my clothes so stiff?

If you are like me and are too poor and/ or space-challenged to purchase a dryer (a rather rare luxury item here, see above on appliances), you may have experienced towels that practically stand up on their own after being crisped by the hot sun on your terrace. I only learned recently that fabric softener, which I thought only came in Bounce dryer sheets, can be added to the laundry and satisfactorily remedy this situation! The ammorbidente section of my Esselunga is about 10 square metres large, with dozens of brands and "flavours" from which to choose. Many smell horrid; check for employees in the vicinity, then stealthily remove caps and sniff all options before buying. I like the Coccolina 'stiro-facile' concentrated type.

Question 13. What are all those numbers & letters on my washing machine dial?

My GE washing machine in the USA had a few handy options: cold/hot, and on/off. My Hoover-brand washing machine in Italy, just a base model, has 18 numbers, 6 symbols, a temperature dial from 30 to 100 degrees and 4 buttons, only 2 of which are labeled. The instruction book took me an hour to read. It is written for someone with an engineering degree, but my husband, who has one, claims not to understand its myriad functions nonetheless.

When we first installed it, it took 2.5 hours to do a "cotton" load with cold water. I put in our brand new olive green sheets, and they came out with white spots that looked like bleach marks in the pattern of the machine's drum! Four more loads of ruined laundry later, an expensive call to the service-man left me feeling like a real dolt. The water tap, to which the machine is connected, was not fully open, so water was just trickling in, and the heavy duty concentrated Dixan colour gel that I was using had virtually burned my laundry.

If your washing machine looks anything like mine and you wonder how it works, and if you don't have a masters degree in home economics, I suggest the following guidelines so that you don't ruin your clothes on first try like I did.

  • Read the instruction book if you have it, but don't trust their opinion on what is white/ dark/ cotton/ synthetic etc.
  • Open the water all the way!!
  • If it's a new machine, run an empty load first to clean it.
  • Italians boil their white cottons. While I lived with an Italian family, the elastic edges of underwear and tank tops turned grey as a result of this practice. Your machine will probably recommend a super long, hot load for your cottons. If you have anything delicate, beware!
  • If your dial starts at 30 degrees like mine, but you want just a cold load, set the dial in the area before the numbers start. At 30 degrees, my machine heats the water and anything that will run, does run.
  • Use caution. Anything really cheap (t-shirts from the market), really bright (the year that turquoise was in) or really expensive (that adorable Max Mara shirt) should be hand washed with "Lip" (woolite). My hand-washing pile is large and means that anything that falls into these categories gets worn and washed once a season.
  • Each machine is different, but when in doubt, use a short load with regular spin dry, set on cold water. Experiment gradually until you find what works best.
  • When loading a front-loader, make sure nothing gets caught in the door when you close it. I have been known to cause small floods in this way.
  • Experiment with liquid detergents. The marsiglia ones are milder and seem to cause less colour fade

Question 14. Where do I go to pay my bills?

Most bollette, or bills, are paid at the post office (not the bank!). This is the case for all utilities (water, gas, electricity, phone) unless you opt for direct debit to your bank account. The bill will come with a slip that looks basically like this, only with real numbers filled in

To pay the bill, take the slip and cash to the nearest post office (often only open in the morning). Stand in line for the "prodotti banco posta", the banking services, which now are coded with blue signs (not the place where you buy stamps, with green signs). There will be long lines on or just before the due dates of major bills, like Telecom. At the sportello (wicket), hand the agent the slip and the cash, PLUS the 1 euro commission. Your payment will be processed and you will be handed a receipt.

If you have a bank account at the BancoPosta, you can pay these bills directly from your account, at the bank or online, though you still pay the commission.. This may be useful if you have large bills to pay, because otherwise you will be trekking cash around the city. The BancoPosta saving account is available to non-residents with a permesso di soggiorno, and costs less than accounts at any "real" bank. However, do not expect this "bank" to function like any other bank you have ever used. International bank transfers and checks are unknown objects here. Even cashing local checks takes a week. I have an account with them, which works great for paying in stores with a bancomat and paying my bollette, but that's about it.

Question 15. What is that nasty smell?

Here's a FAQ not to be read while eating. I hope this never happens to you, but just in case, I thought I'd address the evil odour that often wafts up through drains in my bathroom, and, it seems, in many other peoples' bathrooms in places a couple of hundred years old. This would be an embarrassing topic, if it were not entirely NOT MY FAULT IT SMELLS!! I thought I was being a bad housewife, but it turns out it has to do with the plumbing system in Italy.

Here is how it works. In most civilized countries, the "dirty waters" from your kitchen and bathroom go directly into a common sewer and travel to the treatment plant. In Italy and France, they are first held in a fosse biologica, a kind of septic tank, on your property. Those of you with a cottage in North America will be familiar with this primitive system. In this nasty place, the size of which is commensurate with the size of the building in question, brace yourself: intestinal bacteria breaks down theā€?yaknow, the stuff. Without going into greater detail, let's just say that when it's ready, it then goes into the common sewer. If chemicals, cellulose and other substances end up in the fossa, or if the balance of water to solid is slightly off, the system doesn't work very well.

Smelly old bathrooms may well be a result of a septic system that does not function properly. It does not help if the tubes were installed badly. In my 14th century convent, converted into apartments in the 80's, my master bathroom seems to be in a direct tube-line from the nasty holding tank. Re sult: odour.

I found out there are two things you can do about this. The first is to purchase a simple product called WC Net, little baggies that you can flush, that are supposed to help things along.

If you're in a more dire situation, you have to call out a company for a spurgo. If you're in a condominium or small apartment building, ask the administrator when this was last done. When I asked around, it turns out nobody had cleaned the septic for 8 years. Look up "spurgo" or "autospurgo" in your local yellow pages. They come out with a big truck and pump, and soon after, it's all better!

Have a helpful hint?
Drop me a line at cristina@expatsinitaly.com and I will include it in my next update.


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