Small Wins for the Expat Survivor

UnusualIt has been two months since I have been living in Italy. On the surface, it would appear that I’m living the dream life. I wake up every morning to a picturesque cityscape, I am surrounded by some of the best food in the world, and the decision between purchasing water or wine is an easy one because, well, wine is cheaper. But I promise you it’s not all “pizza pie” in the sky. In fact, being an expat and staying an expat is much harder than you’d think.

Out of the 30 or so TEFL graduates from my class, only about 8 or 9 have managed to last this long in Italy. Some have taken other jobs in other cities, some have gone home broke and homesick, and others have gone on to travel throughout Europe while they still have money in their pockets.  Between visa issues, language barriers, and just plain cultural frustration, Italy can be difficult to handle.

Nothing in Italy is a simple process. It seems like everyday there is a new problem. I have to admit that somedays it has been quite difficult and I have wanted to just throw in the towel, go home, and let someone else take care of me for a while. But then I remember why I came here in the first place, and realize that if it were that simple, everyone would do it. I came here to learn and experience something new – and that’s exactly what I’m going to do, even if means I have to take 5 million detours to get there.

So for anyone living abroad, feeling sorry for yourself because life is hard, I want to offer up a few of my own personal challenges from the past few months, as well as some advice on how to get through it. My solutions may not be the answer for everyone (especially regarding legal documents, as the procedure is always changing), but I hope they at least provide some hope!

1. Legal Documents – This is perhaps the thing that I have had to jump through the most hoops for…and believe me it’s not over yet! Many people come to Italy on a 90-day tourist visa, find under-the-table paid work, overstay their visa and then return home whenever they are ready. This is all well and good except for two things: it is difficult to find a REAL job without a work/student visa and after your 90 day tourist visa expires, you are putting yourself at risk at getting deported (very unlikely, but still possible). Since work visas are almost impossible to obtain (you have to already have a job offer and the government has to be in an issuing period called a “flussi” where they issue a certain number of work visas), I obtained a 6-month student visa before I came. This allows me to legally work 25 hours per week. The catch is: you have to be enrolled in a class that meets 20 hours/week or more AND it is rare to find an employer that will hire you for only 6 months! Of course, you can return home, reapply for a new student visa, and then come back to continue working/studying, but that can be very time consuming and costly. Best advice (and most impractical) anyone ever gave me: “It is cheaper and easier to marry an Italian than to obtain a visa”. Guess I’ll be hitting up…

Some good resources on visas, permesso di soggiorni, and Italian dual citizenship:

2. Finding an apartment  –  For someone like me, apartment hunting in a place like Florence or Bologna is no easy task! This is because I’m somewhere in between a tourist and a permanent resident. I don’t need a luxury apartment, but I also can’t commit to an apartment for longer than a 2-3 months. If you search for an apartment using keywords in English (i.e.: Florence Apartments, Florence Rentals), you’re most likely going to find luxury apartments with a nice view of the Duomo and a rental price that will blow your budget in the first month. On the other hand, more residential housing often requires a 6 month to a year long contract, and can sometimes have high agency fees. Long story short, finding temporary, affordable housing in a big city is HARD. My suggestion would be to start looking early, shop around, and have an open mind! You might not find exactly what you’re looking for, but with a little luck you can find a cozy flat somewhere off the beaten path that will suffice just fine. Sites such as,,, are all good – just be prepared to translate from Italian to English, as most of these are in Italian.


3. Transportation – After about a week of walking around on the uneven cobblestone, you’ll know exactly what I mean. In addition to your feet hating you, there will come a day when you need to go outside the city center and you’re feet simply won’t be able to take you there. This is when its time to do one of two things: buy a bike or take the bus. I personally enjoy riding my bike, but the bus is a better option for rainy days or if you need to take that trip to IKEA! For more info on both of these, see the following: Biking in FlorenceBuses in FlorenceBuses in Bologna.


4. Speaking the language – This is pretty much crucial for living daily life without feeling like a total tourist. All I can say is, learn as much of the language as you possibly can and don’t be afraid to try. Most Italians appreciate you trying (some don’t, but don’t be discouraged). If you don’t know something, simply ask what the word is in Italian. You’ll learn something new and chances are you’ll be able to use it again next time.  I know I have succeeded when halfway through the conversation the Italian person turns to me and asks, “Sei italiana?”  – Are you Italian? Of course I begin smirking to myself, thinking, “Hah! I tricked you!” But then there are also those moments when I’m speaking with my Sardinian roommate whose accent is so thick I can’t understand half the things he says. Such moments remind me that I am never finished learning…


5. Making friends – Ok, I get it. All you young Italian people live at home with your parents, hang out with the same group of friends you’ve had since kindergarden, and have no interest in coming to the pub to pay for an overpriced beer. Fine, but if we do end up meeting, can you please be nice? Can we please be friends?

So far, it’s been nearly impossible to meet Italian people my age because, well, they just don’t exist in Florence. The nearest univeristy is Novoli, located just outside the city center. Even still, most Italian students live at home and commute to the closest university. Although I have met many young people from countries around the world, I find it quite difficult to meet native Italians! It can be done though – you just have to be in the right place at the right time. I think I will have better luck in Bologna, where there are university students everywhere.