Due to my husband’s career, we live a fairly nomadic lifestyle and have been fortunate enough to have spent a year living in Sardinia (which we loved), followed by two years in Wales (beautiful country with such friendly people) and finally 5 months in northern Italy – interspersed by travels to Croatia, Spain, France & Turkey.
It was with a strange mixture of elation and a heavy heart that I got into the hire car packed to the brim with our possessions and two dogs. For it was that after 5 tumultuous months living in Italy we were starting the long drive back to the UK. Our experience of life in Italy had been a cocktail of traumas intertwined with fabulous experiences. Our problems stemmed mainly from situations involving my husband’s employer and not with Italy itself, so it was this reason that my heart was heavy as I had fallen in love with this beautiful country. Unfortunately, I had not reckoned with the gulf in cultural differences between our more equality conscious British attitudes and the seemingly outdated views of Italian society.
Our problem was that we whilst we were happy to move abroad again, indeed we fully intend to move permanently to France at some point in the future, this move was forced on us by my husband’s job so almost overnight, and without any choice of country or location, we became expats for the second time.
At first this adventure in a foreign country and our new life abroad was exciting and reawakened my love of travel – anyone visiting Verona, Venice, Lake Gardaand Padova can only be inspired by the beauty and history; but gradually the loneliness, the isolation and the cultural differences wore away at the enjoyment.
The first month of living in a small town 10km outside of Venice proved to be an exhausting rollercoaster ride, one which fluctuated from joy and amazement at our new life to uncertainty, emotional exhaustion and raw loneliness. It would have been easy enough to quit and go home, allowing the stress of getting started in a foreign land to drive us away. However, neither of us being quitters by nature, we put our heads down and resolved to make the most of the opportunity. I forced myself to remember why I was here (aside from following my husband!) – which was to embrace and learn from a new culture, to immerse myself in a completely different way of living, to make new friends, and to have amazing travel experiences.
As we had discovered on a previous move abroad, the list of ‘essential items’ is never ending and for the first week, alongside daily visits to Venice, we busied ourselves with ticking off as many items as we could. By the end of the week we had bought an Internet dongle, sourced an Italian SIM card and opened a bank account (not as scary as we had first feared as the lovely lady in the bank was keen to use our meeting as an opportunity to practice her English).
However, whilst Italy is only a 90 minute flight from the UK and our European ‘cousin’, it does not make it a comfortable place to live as an expat or a place which we, as enlightened Brits, can easily relate to. Perhaps the fact that it is virtually on our doorstep lulled me into a false sense of security; how hard I reasoned could it be to settle into Italian life? And, apart from the amazing cuisine and stereotypical ‘macho’ image – which must be Hollywood manufactured surely –how different could it be to the UK? The answer, unfortunately, is very, very different.
The biggest headache, and something we also encountered whilst living on the Italian Isle of Sardinia, was the complete and utter refusal of the locals to try to understand our attempts at Italian conversation. Unlike the French, who embrace foreigner’s attempts at speaking their language, the Italians steadfastly refuse to understand travellers faltering attempts at using their mother tongue. Time after time we were met with ‘non capisco’ (‘I don’t understand). Whilst I am the first to admit that my pronunciation is a little stilted and I definitely don’t roll my r’s like the locals, I know that what comes out of my mouth closely resembles what I should be saying – this was after all our second stint living in Italy. The blank looks which accompany the put down became a disheartening daily occurrence and one I, along with the South African, New Zealand and Scottish expats living near us, just couldn’t fathom. We just couldn’t understand why the Italians were so hostile to our attempts to communicate with them.
Woman? Seen and not heard
The language problems were also gender specific. Take the absolute refusal of Italian men, young and old, to talk to me or directly respond to my attempts at Italian conversation. Their refusal to acknowledge my presence resulted in them replying to my bemused husband as if I hadn’t spoken. This happened consistently throughout our time in northern Italy. I grew so frustrated that I sought an answer from a newly made Italian friend; she simply shrugged with puzzlement and said ‘but you are a woman’, as if being treated like a second-class citizen was the most normal thing in the world. On another occasion, this same Italian friend, with two university degrees and outwardly very worldly, also informed me that a ‘boy’ we were standing close to was considered to be far too young to live on his own, was causing a scandal in the town and had embarrassed his ‘Mama’; he was 27 years old and the same age as my husband!
Whilst my husband was at work, I battled extreme loneliness and the day to day frustrations of life as a female in Italy. The anger I felt when my €75 Lidl shop, scanned, bagged and back in my trolley, had to be returned because they refused my LloydsTSB visa debit card threatened to overwhelm me. The cashier, the same one who had served me two days prior and had happily accepted my card as payment stared at me insolently as I tried, in pigeon Italian, to remind her that for the previous five months I had successfully used that card. A very helpful Somalian gentleman, a fellow customer with perfect Italian, tried in vain to help me translate (we had shopped at the same time on many an occasion over the preceding months) but he too failed to get the assistant to allow me to buy my shopping. His exasperated ‘bloody Italy’ did little to help the situation but summed up, albeit more mildly than I would have put it, exactly how I was feeling.
“Relaxed” pace of life?
The slower ‘relaxed’ pace of life was also a challenge – take the time we returned home after a weekend away to find the apartment flooded and water pouring through the ceiling from the flat above. It took 5 days for the landlord to respond to our anguished phone calls and emails, during this time we had to turn the electricity off and rely on the goodness of our neighbour’s allowing us access to their kitchens. The landlord didn’t come round because he (in his words) ‘didn’t believe us’ and thought we were being ‘dramatic and exaggerating’ the problem – we later found out that he was livid with himself as the damage was extensive (and expensive!)
There was also the on-going uncertainty about when, or if, my husband (and indeed fellow co-workers both Italian and expats) would receive his monthly salary. The date of payment varied by up to 3 weeks each month making some months 7 weeks long and rendering budgeting impossible – his employer had a clause written into the contract stating that payment could be made up to 20 days late each month with no repercussion to them. Add to this the financial penalties imposed by the employer for perceived misdemeanors at work which were deducted from the wages without any prior consultation with employees. Each month once the wages were eventually received it was a total lottery regarding the actual amount in the pay packet. Can you imagine this happening in the UK?
Another, frustrating problem was the lack of a postal service. Various items of post from home just didn’t turn up. After repeatedly enquiring why were hadn’t received any post, we discovered that our apartment building was not registered with the council, meaning we didn’t have a postal service or a bin collection. We were advised that the council thought the block was empty and were told to keep quiet; this despite the council asking the local police officer to pay us a visit to ensure that our paperwork was intact. The council, in true Italian style, turned a blind eye to the eight occupants of the building and we in turn had to do without bin collections or postal deliveries. Hot Italian days and decomposing rubbish stored in the apartment made an uncomfortable combination.
The Final Straw
However, the final straw came after my husband had asked for and received (written) permission to fly to London to fulfill a prior commitment. Afterwards he was heavily fined and sanctioned for being “absent without permission” – the bilingual line manager who had given him the permission flatly denied it claiming that he didn’t understand English so didn’t know what he was agreeing to. It was then that we realised we either had to shut up or get out and, without detailing the unpleasantness of the following weeks, we left with regret and the realisation that you really do need to live in a country to truly understand its culture.
I refuse to tar every Italian with the same brush, indeed I have made some very good friends (two of whom visited me in the UK last month), but after experiencing extreme hostility and aggravation, it is fair to say that we will not be returning to live anytime soon although we would return on holiday like a shot as the country is one of the most beautiful we have visited.
It seems that it is somehow fashionable to decry living in Britain, but as a returning expat, I embrace the open dialogue, the gender equality and the freedom of expression that we Brits enjoy and also the security that if a company defaults on the payment of wages something, other than a shoulder shrug, will be done about it! I do miss the freedom of living abroad – life isn’t so structured and the al fresco aspect of life on the continent is an absolute joy. But all things considered, I’m happy to be back in the UK and starting a new adventure in a new town.
Since this article was first published, the author has been inundated with similar tales from fellow expats who also found life in Italy to be a challenge. Apparently the ‘Lidl’ story resonated with a number of readers! If you have a positive take you would like to share, please do get in touch.