Living, Learning, and Integrating Abroad in Italy
It’s difficult to really integrate in a new country. Having lost your mother tongue, income, status, resource network, and every friend you ever made, you may find yourself running low on confidence. To be fair, managing to fit into Italy and the Italian way of life is easier than attempting to do so in many other countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Iceland. Italians love to talk. Oh, they talk and talk, to anybody willing to talk back. Contrary to the common notion, the country shape on the map could be seen not so much as a boot, but as a ceaselessly wagging tongue. That said, after a spell of amicable chats with baristas and curious neighbors, you may feel a need for a deeper connection than “What’s that going on down at the piazza?” So how do you really assimilate with Italians?
Some people think that learning the local language isn’t strictly necessary. Yes, you might manage without. Yet isn’t living abroad about exploding your monolingual comfort zone and letting some air in? If you can’t get around to basic Italian before you arrive, get stuck in pronto when you do. Language schools abound with flexible learning options, from crash courses to weekly evening classes. You need to know some Italian because (apart from Italians working in tourism and a few, elite others), surprisingly little English is spoken across the country. Apparently, life can be rich, long and perfectly adequate, speaking nothing but your madrelingue (mother tongue).
Those Italians who are learning English, however, are hungry for conversation exchanges (i.e. an hour of me listening to you mangle my language, followed by an hour of me butchering yours). There’s your first integration opportunity, not just to talk, but to peek into the Italian mind. This may save you, down the line, from committing socio-cultural hara-kiri, like saying “What kind of hopeless loser lives with their parents past 30?” My first conversation exchange partner was a 36-year-old Roman woman who does exactly that. She assured me that it’s quite normal.
In my quartiere of Roma Nord, so far only two people speak English other than me. They’re not Italian. Far from it. One is a Romanian student who works summers in the gelateria. The other is my fellow sub-Saharan, a Zimbabwean man. After not too long in urban Italy, the existential question arises: If this is Italy, where are the Italians? Such confusion is likely to dawn while using public transportation, which is used heavily by newcomers. These include Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans. We all have one single feature in common: Italian. So if you can’t speak it, you can’t communicate with other immigrants. Beyond general uses such as asking for directions, the language may serve you in other ways (e.g. “Excuse me, you’re standing on my foot”).
Networking with Expatriates
When I moved to Rome, I immediately joined an ex-pat women’s group. There are numerous such networks for foreigners and a modicum of googling will yield them. As much as I love language learning, when I’m in need of a good gripe, a social drink, or a reference for a podiatrist, I like to share the low-down with my own. These associations serve up, on a platter, friendship, resources, essential info and cultural activities. Many English-speakers stop right there, amongst their own, by dint of convenience. Some never bother to learn Italian. They get by.
A few brave souls engage in total immersion, the jump-in-headfirst approach. They arrive, move in with Italian room-mates, get a bar job and secure an Italian lover to provide backup learning beneath the covers. A year or so later, you may hear them say, “Oh? English...Well, I don’t use it much. Nah, I’d rather hang out with my Italian friends.” To this, the French would say chapeau! (I take my hat off to you.)
Exploring Your Interests
A less bracing in-road to society comes via acquiring or sharpening a skill. Whether it’s mastering your yogic headstand or handmade gnocchi, you may find a mix of Italian and English-speaking participants or teaching. Such a combination I found in a cooking course run by Flavor of Italy, an Italian-American team who offer gastronomic travel experiences and culinary training. Although it was taught in English, a fellow student was Roman. She was taking the course to brush up on her English, while enjoying the bounty conjured up in the kitchen –– a cunning display of multitasking. So she and I ended up code-switching (swapping from one language to another, whenever a word in one eludes you). We were fed, not just gastronomically, but socially and linguistically too. Now I know the names of certain local produce only in Italian. Figurati! Fancy that!
As on home turf, working, learning and volunteering abroad enable like-minded people to meet. At grassroots movement, Retake Rome, Italians and ex-pats scrape graffiti off the canvas of the city, side by side. The movement was jumpstarted by one American woman and soon, partnerships with Italian structures sprung up, including the Garibaldi Foundation run by the granddaughter of the original, red-shirted Garibaldi. From steel scrubbing brushes to the offspring of heroes. Being the speaker of a language other than Italian, your language skills may become valuable. Since I joined an Italian organization promoting health, I offered to staff a stand at an international conference taking place in Italy. On site, however, being the only person present to speak both English and Italian, I was launched into day-long simultaneous interpretation. It gave me a wonderful sense of whatever the opposite of alienation is.
Being away from home brings out the nostalgia in one. Tapping into this, English theater groups in cities across Europe run productions, with amateurs and professionals, usually performed in characterful theatres. Volunteers, both ex-pat and local, participate in every aspect: set-building, costumes, lighting and ushering, if not the acting itself. Amateur drama groups provide ample scope for mingling and trying out something that in your home country, nobody would allow you to do. No self-respecting friend, that is. In an attempt to spare you the indignity of auditioning for “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” your old friends would forbid you not to or trash the idea until it’s no longer appealing. Abroad, however, the shackles of well-meaning friends and cultural constraints fall away.
Occasionally the English plays performed are old-fashioned, but your yearning to hear your language spoken properly might outweigh this. You may positively ache to hear it roll off the tongue with correctly conjugated verbs and clear distinctions between words such as “lunch”, “launch”, “latch” and “lounge.” Some such theaters offer velvet seats for patrons and draped stage curtains. Others are more modest. Spartan. Think of seats at the Coliseum. May I advise against taking an Italian man to a five-act Shakespeare play at which patrons sit on thinly-cushioned stairs? His Latin temper, smarting in Act II, will be seething by Act III. Quite irrespective of how merry those wives of Windsor may be. Nowadays, I go with my American friends and my own cushion.
Changing countries shifts one’s paradigms. More correctly, it rips them wide open. In Rome, I have developed friendships with an entirely new social demographic: senior citizens. With more than 20% of the population over 65, the talent pool is large. Pensioners, with time on their hands, passions to polish and no workplace, are out and about in droves. In Italia, seventy is the new forty.
The Università Popolare di Roma offers affordable lessons on just about every subject (such as sailing, Caravaggio, art for tour guides, belly-dancing, and umpteen languages at different levels). Having signed up for a course on T.S. Eliot taught in both languages, I met my classmates: retired Italians, teachers, writers, translators, and book-lovers. Two of my favorite Italians have become 71-year-old Giuseppe, who is writing a fascinating socio-political analysis of Batman, and fellow language-learner 79-year-old Gino, determined to make me learn my verbs properly. Septuagenarians were not formerly my buddies, but that was then and this is now. This is Italy!
Making the effort to integrate into your new country can lead you down unexplored avenues, to uncanny friendships and greater assimilation. Moving abroad can be immensely liberating. Behind, you leave reassuring/restrictive structures and safe/suffocating boxes into which people place one another. In your foreign setting, there is so very much you don’t even know that you don’t even know. Set off into the unknown, sample surprising encounters, and try on new hats. You might discover—to your astonishment—that you are really a hat person. Chapeau!
For More Information
Crosscultural Moments provides coaching to facilitate the transition to life abroad, to ex-pats in Italy and all around the world: elizabethabbot.com/home.
www.friendsinrome.com offers social and cultural activities for ex-pats of all nationalities in Rome, as well as like-minded Italians.
Wanted in Rome, www.wantedinrome.com, publishes news as well as cultural listings in Rome and Italy. It provides a list of associations in Rome.
Groups geared for Americans include the American Women’s Association of Rome (AWAR), www.awar.org, and the American International Club of Rome, www.aicrome.org.
Flavor of Italy in Rome offers gastronomic travel, culinary learning and cooking classes: www.flavorofitaly.com.
Università Popolare di Roma (Upter) offers affordable courses on many subjects, educational trips, and free public seminars. Their catalogue is available online at www.upter.it.
Corsincitta sends out email alerts of courses run throughout Italy: www.corsincitta.it
LanguageCourse.net lists language schools across Italy: www.languagecourse.net as does TransitionsAbroad.com’s Language Study in Italy page.
Volunteering in Rome
The Roman Cat Sanctuary is an international group of animal-loving volunteers: www.romancats.com.
TransitionAbroad.com's Volunteer in Italy list volunteer opportunities.
English Theater in Rome
Theater groups include: the English Theatre of Rome, www.rometheatre.com, The Miracle Players, www.miracleplayers.org, The Rome Savoyards, www.romesavoyards.it.