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Living the Dream of Becoming a Resident in Italy

Making it Work in Perugia

The Piazza IV Novembre with its fountain in the center of Perugia, Italy.
The Piazza IV Novembre with its fountain in the center of Perugia.

The dream began as a wish, a simple statement of vast, vague longing: Let’s try to live in Italy for a year. It was easy to be overtaken with the romance of it all, for in picturing a year in Italy one thinks only of postcard images and long slow meals in sunny piazzas that exist, somehow, outside the influence of time. But once we decided to actually make the move, we endeavored to somehow find the real Italy, and to truly experience another culture through immersion. Up until the moment we left—stepping on a plane in the Boston airport with one-way tickets in our hands—we still held our original dream intact and unspecified. We landed in Italy with no sure employment, no set destination, and $5,000. Six weeks later we were settled, employed, and immensely content.

The cast of travelers, I should note, were two, Alicia and I. We met our senior year of college, and we had been dating for five years. We were both 26, each having just finished our second year teaching in America. I had been teaching English at a boarding school in Connecticut. Because I was living on campus and not paying rent I was able to put aside a few thousand dollars for the trip. I had been to Italy twice before, both times briefly, and had no knowledge of the language. Alicia, on the other hand, was a bit of an Italophile. She had studied abroad in Siena as an undergraduate and fell in love with the culture and way of life. She returned to school in America the next semester and switched her major to Italian Language and Literature. Two years after graduation she started teaching Italian at a public high school in western Massachusetts and became a dual citizen.

Alicia’s ancestry is pure Italian. Even though no one in her family had lived in Italy for nearly one hundred years (even her grandparents were born in America) she was still eligible to become an Italian citizen, and for years she had considered it. The idea came to her during college when she was thinking of spending a summer volunteering for WWOOF (World-Wide Organization of Organic Farms in Italy. A related website mentioned that American citizens with Italian heritage could apply to become dual citizens, Italian and American. The process was actually easier than one might expect: Alicia spent several days at the Italian Consulate in Boston completing forms and finding out what documents she needed. She then called the hall of records in her great-grandparents’ hometown of Anzano di Puglia to get birth and marriage certificates. From the Boston Registry of Public Records she needed certificates of naturalization, marriage, birth, and death, proving that she was, in fact, the descendant she claimed to be. Finally, she asked her grandfather and father to sign notarized statements saying that they had never officially renounced their Italian citizenship. The entire process took less than six months and cost under $200 (including passport fee, phone calls, and postage to Italy, and the cost of obtaining and verifying the American documents—by far the most expensive step). In the end Alicia had a bright new Italian passport, good for 10 years, and the right to live and work without a visa in Italy or any other EU country.

But despite Alicia’s dual citizenship and her résumé packed with teaching experience, she was unable to find a job before we left. She sent out dozens of emails and letters, talked her way through several phone cards, and scoured the Internet for openings and postings. She applied to all types of schools: public, private, language institutes, and department of defense schools. Nothing promising came back. What we learned was that Italian employers place very little value in résumés showing degrees from American universities they have never heard of and letters of reference from people they don’t know. Instead, emphasis is on professional interactions and interpersonal rapport. But while it was nearly impossible to find work before we left America, work offers abounded once we settled in Italy. Ten days after finding our apartment Alicia had two job offers—one teaching and one translating—and several other prospects.

In the end, the aspect of our trip that proved most challenging was getting to the point of feeling settled. Because we left America without a set destination, our first few weeks in Italy were spent trying to decide where we wanted to live. We ended up in Perugia, the capital of Umbria. After three weeks of wandering through cities that felt either too touristy or too isolated, Perugia felt just right. The lesson we learned was this: it is best to find your place to live first, and a job second. As we were traveling around the country, we tried certain towns or citiesfor a few days, checking the want ads and making calls, but doing this with a hotel (or even a hostel) as a home base ate up our savings at an alarming rate: €30 to €50 per night for sleeping, €20 to €40 to eat, €10 for internet and phone, plus the cost of travel in between. Once we had our place, though, we could live cheaply: our rent totaled €10 per day and we could now cook for ourselves and spend much less on food. The palpable feeling of stability that comes with unpacking helped us focus all our energy on the job hunt. Additionally, the greatest thing a potential employer can hear is, “I just moved to town and can start immediately.”

Living in Italy: A View of Perugia.
A view of Perugia from the author’s bedroom window.
Photo by John Becker.

Finding housing in a university town was amazingly easy. We arrived in late September, stayed one night in a hostel and were living in our apartment by the second night. We accomplished this by merely going to the student center at the university. There we found bulletin boards that were thickly plastered with housing announcements. We called four and set up visits. We only saw two. At our second meeting our housematesto- be had espresso waiting when we walked in the door. We took one look at our room—15th-century exposed beam ceiling, 18’ x 18’ floor plan, two windows with expansive views of the city church spires, and olive farms on the distant slopes of the Apennine mountains—and accepted on the spot. Our three housemates were students at the university, all in their mid-twenties and each spoke at least some English. In our second week in the apartment they taught us how to make tiramisu and we made them an apple pie.

Apartment in Perugia, Italy.
A glimpse of the author’s apartment, located on the second floor above the arch. Photo by John Becker.

Our landlord, like most in Italy, allowed us to rent month-to-month. And, while we did have to pay our first and last month’s rent before we moved in, this gave us two months of guaranteed residence. Should worst come to worst, we thought, and we are unable to find jobs, we will head back to America after those two months are up, having not succeeded in living in Italy for year, but having enjoyed a lengthy vacation instead.

From the beginning our dream was to live as Italian as possible for one year. We wanted to be residents, not visitors. So much of modern tourism is about exoticism and reduction, about taking a picture and buying something to bring home. We set out to find the Italy that existed beyond Roman ruins and renaissance art, outside of cappuccino and Chianti. To this end, nothing could surpass living with Italians, for I will always consider our first dinner with our roommates to be my most Italian experience. As the sky sweetened to dark blue as the sun went down slowly into the mountains, Dianna, from Abruzzo, brought out a small jar of her grandmother’s pasta sauce. Lara, Sicilian, cut up provolone cheese from her father’s farm. And eating on plastic plates with dub reggae music in the background we savored food that would outshine any authentic restaurant, for we had found just what we came for.

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Living in Italy: Essential Resources
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