What are the pluses and minuses of moving to Italy?
September 12, 2012 3:25 PM   Subscribe

What are the pluses and minuses of moving to Italy?

Financially independent/retired and seriously considering moving to Italy. If Italy does not work out, I will consider somewhere else in Europe. Europe agrees with my sensibilities; the US does not.

For those who have lived in Italy or Europe as American expats or know others who have, what are the benefits or disadvantages of life there as an expat? For example, what are the things that affect your life as a resident that you might not notice as a visitor?

Please don't just tell me "it's a dream" or "it's impossible," because I am very determined to make this happen. Thank you.
posted by davisnot to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Do you speak Italian? I'd say that's probably the biggest factor for your success. We have close family friends who bought a farmhouse to restore and then to retire in, but their lack of comprehension of the language made them easy targets for the unscrupulous. Getting any basic services, like phones, permits, etc., required a great deal of interaction with the local bureaucracy as well as a fair amount of under-the-table payments.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:48 PM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Downside- having to rebuild social support systems from nothing (depending on the person, if they already have connections there, etc). It's a lot, when there is NO ONE you can call to bring you food when you are sick, or sit by your bed in a hospital.

Downside- you will almost always be there American. You will have to explain Romney, and Bush and why there is binge drinking and the Kardashians and some new thing that people have heard of in the local language press but you haven't yet because you are so removed from America.

Downside- unless you renounce your US citizenship, still being subjected to certain taxes while abroad. Along with this, if you do not have citizenship in the country you reside, there is always the possibility that whatever you may have built up will be taken away. Maybe a local government goes south- what recourse do you have for yourself, your property, assets? If you get mixed up in a crime, you could be deported.

Downside- it costs a lot of money to deal with things that may have been relatively easy to do in the USA ex. what if you need a notarized, certified copy of your birth certificate? Expect that to take longer and more money than if you were in the USA.

Downside- time zones making it really difficult to call/ skype when others aren't at work.

Upside- Italian food.

It might help if you list some of the things you've had on your mind or specific reasons for wanting to move. There's plenty of reasons to move or not, which only you can answer.
posted by raccoon409 at 4:05 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

How much time have you spent in Italy? Specifically in the part of Italy where you might move? It's quite different region to region. Also, how flexible are you? When my parents lived in Italy, they had a hard time not knowing how much the electric bill would be each month because they only received a bill occasionally. Or that the bank was open at seemingly random hours. They survived but things like that made them concerned from time to time.
posted by kat518 at 4:06 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

This will be quick and dirty because it's almost 1am here...

First hurdle: if you don't have an EU passport, you'll need an elective residence visa which off the top of my head requires proof of X amount funds per year, possibly health insurance yadda yadda.

Once you have that, upon arrival you will need to get your permesso di soggiorno and codice fiscale. You will need to register your residence with your local city hall. If you plan on driving you will need to take the written and practical test as there is no reciprocity between the USA and Italy.

As Ideefixe points out, speaking Italian will greatly lower any frustration in obtaining the above but the reference to under-the-table payments for bureaucracy is straight out of a mafia movie.

Opening hours are not 24/7 nor continuous for many government offices and businesses. Finding aid opening hours can be frustrating at times. You have to adjust to a more relaxed relationship to time. Lunch time can be longer, dinner is eaten later.

Vis-a-vis the utility bills, they are based on estimated use and a yearly meter reading means that you might end up with a end-of-year mega bill or a credit. You can avoid this for the most part by calling in/registering online the meter reading during the periods stated on your previous bill. They are making the switch to automated electric readers but it's a long process.

If you are planning to drive, gas has spiked twice this summer over €2 a liter. Insurance rates are largely influenced by where your residence is and how long you have been driving. Your US drivers license us again of no use in this latter case and get ready to pay out the nose for minimal coverage if you live in Naples...

More tomorrow when I'm not on my iPhone and have had some sleep...
posted by romakimmy at 4:25 PM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

a fair amount of under-the-table payments.

I have a few expat friends who currently live or have in the past lived in Italy. All of them talk a lot about the general under-the-table-ness of life there. It seems like Italian society approaches certain things much more casually than US society does. Everything is very informal. Also potentially corrupt. It's all about who you know, like, literally. Your ability to get by depends a lot on things like charm and savvy and patience for this sort of thing. Language skills factor into this, but even outside of that, how willing are you for Every Little Thing to become a negotiation? For that matter, how willing are you to hear "no"?

Other things they complain about a lot:

- the general level of racism, anti-semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiments. Some of them directly had their lives impacted by this stuff, others simply noticed it and were not amused.

- the sense of 24/7 availability of everything, not so much. A friend has a story of being in Rome at Christmas, and everything was closed. Everything. To the point that she was rationing the food in her cupboard. The "afternoon siesta" mentality is pretty easy to deal with. But it goes beyond that. I also remember being with her and having to try 10 different stores to find the right top-up chit for her phone, and in general trying to buy bus tickets and passes all over Italy. People will just straight up tell you, "I dunno." There is no culture of "the customer is always right."

- one friend of mine definitely got a sense from time to time that she was treated differently because she was a foreigner. And not different like better.

I say all this as someone who has spent about a month in Italy over the course of a decade, has traveled all over the country, and who would move to Italy in a heartbeat. But by knowing expats I'm aware that life there has its downsides.
posted by Sara C. at 4:50 PM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Rent an apartment for three to six months before you decide this is really for you.
posted by BWA at 5:58 PM on September 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

Plus: Gelato
Minus: Amount of time spent in gym to work off said gelato.

I think this question would depend a great deal on what area you're considering. After spending lots of time in Italy, I would say that the culture is not as optimized for the expat experience as other countries like the Netherlands.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 5:58 PM on September 12, 2012

I lived in Germany more tha two decades ago. I have never been to Italy. I was in Germany as a military wife. We had vouchers for gasoline. There was a huge difference in gas prices between the US and Germany at that time. My understanding is that remains true generally between Europe and the US. Note the above gas price was per liter, not gallon. At current exchange rates, 2 Euros per liter is in the neighborhood of $10/gallon. On the upside, public transit and walkability is generally vastly superior in Europe, so it is much more feasible to live without a car.

As others have noted, they close things for holidays in a way you don't much see in the US. People typically have like six weeks vacation time compared to the American two weeks. As for food, on the one hand, I had trouble getting meat of the quality I expected and intermittent shortages of some things were commonplace and raised no eyebrows. On the other hand, I had access to plain yogurt and ricotta cheese if a quality I have never found in the US. I have considered making my own or even starting a company in the US to bring dairy products of that quality here.

The "country" is not as far from the city as it is in the US and it isn't as sprawling. I did not understand German protests of US military operations until I lived there. In the US, when the military trains, it us on some huge federal military installation in the middle of nowhere. In Germany, it involved driving tanks down city streets and through farmer's fields. It is very different from the way we structure things because we have so much more land compared to our population. The upside of density is availability of amenities like good public transit. The downside includes being unable to escape things that happen in the middle of nowhere in the US and also having generally higher prices and smaller homes.

There is much more sense of history in Europe. There are buildings that are hundreds of years old, museums and castles everywhere, etc. That is fascinating and enriching. I was envious of the people who lived there their entire lives and took that stuff for granted. But it also hems you in to a degree that doesn't happen in the US. It reminds me of a joke about how the Wright brothers could not have invented flight in the modern world because they would have had to do an environmental impact assessment of Kitty Hawk beforehand. The rich history has benefits. It also has costs associated with it.
posted by Michele in California at 6:02 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a few expat friends who currently live or have in the past lived in Italy. All of them talk a lot about the general under-the-table-ness of life there. It seems like Italian society approaches certain things much more casually than US society does.

This attitude--like mosts things--varies to an extreme degree based on location. Not to play into stereotypes, but in very general terms, the farther south you go the more likely this is to be true. I lived in Italy for 18 years, and never had a single under the table transaction. YMM obviously V.

There is a lot to love about the country, and I still consider Bologna my home town. I formed deep bonds with the place, people, and of course the food. Here in the States, it depresses me that I can't go out for tigelle, or take a quick day (hell, afternoon) trip to Venice or Florence. I find it ludicrous that, if I fall sick on a weekend, I can't call the guardia medica for a phone prescription or even a house call, if necessary (thank god I was in Italy when I got that raging kidney infection, for sure). You don't have to ign up for some ridiculous cell phone contract that requires you to magically know in advance how much time you'll spend on the phone, and you don't have to pay for calls both coming and going.

But... I wouldn't live there again. It's hard to express how heavily the relentless bureaucracy weighs on you over time. Everything is inconvenient, and they seem to only import the worst aspects of American culture. Unless you're willing to live in some remote area, the cost of living is stratospheric--when I left eight years ago, a modest two-bedroom apartment in the distant outskirts of Bologna cost the equivalent of around $250-300,000. Increase accordingly if you want to live downtown, or in a larger city like Milan or Rome. And if you do live in the sticks, remember you'll use that much more expensive fuel to get where you need to go. I know you say you're retired, but even outside the workplace there are subtle(ish) yet very real mechanisms that reinforce hierarchies of class, race, and gender. They can be tough to stomach coming from the U.S., even if you think you're cynical about such things here.

I always say that Italy is the epitome of the "great place to visit, wouldn't want to live there" category. I'm very glad I did, but only because I moved there when I was young and didn't really know what I was getting into. These days, I aspire to take a nice trip back every year or two to see people, revisit my favorite haunts, and explore places I never got around to visiting when I thought I'd be there forever. But then, I can come back to the US and lead a much less complicated, more satisfying (to me) life.

That's my take, anyway.
posted by Superplin at 6:04 PM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Let me clarify under the table--no, government officials don't take direct bribes, but if you expect to get a permit, a license, etc, you should be prepared to reciprocate by hiring the official's son or ordering your supplies from his cousin's company and so on. I think the north is less this way than the south or more rural areas, and this may not bother you. But since you have no extended family to bolster your own alliances, you may find that you're always the payer, never the payee.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:10 PM on September 12, 2012

And I'll clarify what I meant about under the table, which includes that sort of thing but also is inspired by anecdotes about things like friends getting drummed out of apartments because it turned out the place was, like, quadruple sublet (meanwhile the friend thinks she's renting directly from the owner and is totally above board). Or other friends being assured by the landlord that X or Y amenity would be set up "soon", but then realizing down the road that it was never going to happen. And having no leverage to get it taken care of due to the sort of status issues Ideefixe mentions.

It seems to me that there's less emphasis on cut and dry formal arrangements, and getting things the way you want -- or even a bare minimum assurance that everything is as it should be -- is much more dependent on social capital than mutual expectations about How Things Should Be.

Folks who've mentioned regionalism and this being more prevalent in the south may well be right.
posted by Sara C. at 7:33 PM on September 12, 2012

You're not Asian by race, are you? Because my husband is (I'm white) and we couldn't figure out why we were getting what we thought were way more than our share of "oh look - foreigners" experiences. That is, until a local (in Florence) told us that a lot of the migrant workforce in Italy are Asian, and are looked down upon generally in Italian society. We are from California, so it was an annoying experience for my husband, and we were only there for two weeks. This was about 5 years ago.
posted by vignettist at 11:33 PM on September 12, 2012

I've lived in Italy, first as an ex-pat, now with (second) citizenship, for 40 years, so I thought, ah! - I can probably write something useful. Then I read the previous comments and saw that most everything has already been raised - especially by Superplin, whose post bears re-reading more than once. I have often told friends in other countries that I wouldn't make the same decision again today that I made 40 years ago. There is very much to be thankful for here in Italy (again, others have already mentioned it), but this is quite simply the wrong moment. The economy is in a huge fix, the light that PM Monti says he can see at the end of the tunnel is a bunch of unemployed people setting fire to themselves, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. I had to spend a whole month's pension in taxes in June - and that was just the 50% down payment; I'll spend the whole of my December pension on the other 50% due at year's end, and I don't know how I'm going to buy food. There are little or no deals for "senior citizens". Having said all of that, the health service (despite draconian cuts) is excellent, has literally saved my life on two occasions, and is affordable if you go all the way, get citizenship (or at least residence) and pay the dues. And I don't think there's a lot of prejudice against USians - rather the contrary: like us Brits, y'all are generally perceived as coming from a society that Italians wished they had themselves. But I can't stress enough the advice others have given upthread: you'll definitely need to speak at least passable Italian from the moment you arrive, and to work hard on improving it - not so easy at the age I assume you are as a retiree.
posted by aqsakal at 12:25 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Real Estate & Renting: As mentioned above, real estate in the major metropolitan areas is high if you're looking to buy. If you want a quaint little villa out in the country, make sure that the land is zoned for living, if you can expand on existing structure or not, and get a professional to guide you through said rollercoaster and an accountant to keep you up on the various property taxes.

Renting you have the transitory contract (up to 18 months), a 3+2 or a 4+4. The latter two are terms of years plus the next automatically renewed period if neither party has given notification via registered letter within the period stated in the contract.

You'll find furnished, semi- or unfurnished rentals. Unfurnished means the landlord provides you with four walls, heating & sanitary fixtures. You provide your own furniture, including a kitchen. Furnished or semi-furnished have varying definitions according to who wrote the classified ad. Heating can be autonomous or centralised, in the latter case heat comes on at set time periods in the fall/winter months. Condominium fees vary widely, based on if there's a doorperson or not, the frequency of cleaning, an elevator, yadda yadda. Ask if the utilities (gas, water, electric, trash tax) and/or condominium fees are included; They usually aren't.

Deposits are typically 2 months' rent and agency fees are 10% of the first year's total rent. You can avoid the latter if you find a flat where the owner is not using an agency.

Racism & xenophobia: Exist, even among Italians themselves. The Northerners bitch about the Southerners and vice versa. Rome is the Mason Dixon line and gets bitched at from both sides. Italians are not Italians first and foremost, they are Roman, Napolitano, Milanese etc. You have the Lega Nord which spout off about secession and dirty foreigners; "foreigners" to them is anyone not from that region.

Italy's influx of refugees, both legal and illegal, is a contributing cause to the rise of racism and xenophobia. There are struggles from both sides on integration and a wary distrust of "other" that has not been helped by former PM Berlusconi getting into bed with the Lega Nord asswipes for the last few years. On comedy shows, you'll see black face or Jerry Lewis in Breakfast at Tiffany's stereotypes. In short, Italy is having growing pains with it's ever enlarging multi-culti status. Consider that debate and evolution of race relations in the US have been going on since the times of slavery; Italy's journey is a minuscule fraction of that.

The upcoming generations will foist more change though, as there are more and more Italian-African/Asian/Arabic/whatever multi-culti kids being born and raised here.

As an American, you will hear a rant or a slur against ex-communitari or stranieri, and when you point out that you too are a straniero and ex-communitario, you'll be told that you're ok, you're American, thus one of the cool ones (if possibly crazy for wanting to live here). This is where I point out with a smile that a slur against ex-communitari is still a slur against me and that there are assholes and batshit insane people in every population. If it's in the setting of a conversation, I point out that in the US the waves of Italian immigrants were similarly looked down upon and slurred against. It's an educational moment and it usually makes them stop and think and reconsider their language.

Nota bene: This is merely a brief sketch of my viewpoint on an obviously complicated topic.

Bureaucracy: Is getting somewhat better! (No really, stop laughing) Things are starting to be or are well on their way to being digitized. As an example, my first permesso di soggiorno was a bit of a tortuous process that was funneled through my nearby police station and if you didn't know someone there who could check for you, your completed issued permesso might be sitting in a pile for over 6 months.

Nowadays I go pick up the forms from the post office, fill them out and go back to the post office to pay the fees, and submit the packet of forms and whatnot. I immediately am given an appointment date for the requisite photo and fingerprint submission at the central immigration center. After said appointment I can check if my permesso is ready for pick up at my local police station online. And every time I have to go, I am struck with how courteous and tiredly patient the officials in the Immigration offices are, a stark contrast to the my first experiences 12-13 years ago. They are overworked and underfunded and a smile goes a long way with them.

My tips for dealing with document type stuff:
- I have 2 binders with originals of every Italian and US document I have been issued. I also have 5 photocopies of each. They get hauled with me whenever I have to deal with paperwork.
- Try calling ahead of time to confirm office hours and what documents you'll need. Bring them all anyways.
- Keep in mind that, much like the US postal system, you'll run across assholes behind the glass but by and large they have to deal with their share as well. Be patient and polite and save the venting for drinks with your expat friends. You catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.
- If the list of documents you need to show/submit differs from what you've been told via phone or internet, ask them politely to write down everything you need. The person you spoke with on the phone might not have been up to date on the ever changing requirements or was just a dumbass; don't take it out on the person who actually has to handle your paperwork.

Healthcare: Italians love to bitch about it, but it's actually one of the top systems in the world, from what I remember of a UN study I read. Voluntary subscription for non-tax paying residents is somewhere around €450 plus maybe a small percentage of your yearly income, if I recall correctly.
posted by romakimmy at 7:07 AM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

The kitchen thing tends to be a real shock for Americans. You move in and there is a faucet sticking out of the wall. No sink even. Just a freaking faucet. The US military would come in and supply a sink, stove, fridge and some cabinets. In a rental situation, not buying a home.

If you haven't already, I suggest you try to find some shows on HGTV about buying a house overseas, especially episodes done in Italy.
posted by Michele in California at 8:01 AM on September 13, 2012

Two other resources for information on the nitty-gritty of getting by in Italy:

1. A very useful website called The Informer, which describes itself as "The online guide to living in Italy", and which concentrates on explaining in very clear language how to go about those everyday tasks (mainly dealing with the bureaucracy) which seem so alien to newly arrived expats. See in particular their Survival Guide.

2. The UK Embassy website also provides guides on a number of everyday issues; these are admittedly geared more to Brits, and are somewhat anodyne as they're not in the business of offending the host country by being too critical, but they're still quite useful.
posted by aqsakal at 2:39 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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