At Least You Can Have a Decent Coffee While You Wait

By: Amy Jones - Also see author's expat blog listing & expat interview

I step out into the glorious sunshine. It's only the end of May and I'm already wearing a summer dress. I take a leisurely stroll along the cobbled street, waving and shouting a hearty CIAO!! to passers by. I turn onto the beautiful main piazza in my lovely little town. Time for a coffee methinks. One of those little cups with a silly bit of foam on. It costs less than a euro you say? Well, that's just fine. Now, what to do with the rest of this sunny afternoon in beautiful southern Italy...

Don't you just hate it when people write like that? Good grief; all those lucky expats who are now 'living the dream', basking in the sunshine of foreign shores. Living next to olive groves and eating fresh fish every day, accompanied by vegetables from their own little vegetable patch in the back garden, which their chiseled, ex-underwear model turned gardener Mario helped them plant. Now Mario doesn't speak any English but it's OK, because they can communicate just fine. (“Blah blah blah”, you think, sat at your desk staring at the rain and munching a soggy sandwich.)

Now, I hate to be one of those people, but sometimes...it really is like that. Maybe without the fresh fish every day (I'm sure even country folk have Birdseye every now and then) and possibly without sexy Mario, all muscles, doing the gardening with his shirt off... Anyway, sometimes expat life, and in particular southern Italian expat life, really is that nice. You get those moments of being truly and thoroughly content; that warm fuzzy feeling inside.

For me, I get said lovely warm feeling when I'm at the beach. Dipping my bare feet into water which doesn't make my toes turn blue. Or when I'm stuffing my face with pizza (yes, I know, I haven't painted a very nice image there have I...but honestly it's just so GOOD!) or when I wake up on a Saturday morning and go to my favourite coffee bar for a croissant and a cappuccino. Munching and slurping as I pretend to be reading the daily newspaper. Life in the south is pretty damn pleasant.

“So where on earth is she going with this?” you may be thinking, as you watch the rain become heavier and dread the traffic on the way home this evening. Well, I said that sometimes it's like this. And 'sometimes' is obviously a long way away from 'always'.Yes, expats are having wonderful experiences abroad, creating a new life and discovering lovely people and a new, exciting culture. But do you think that as soon as your plane touches foreign soil you’ll automatically be catapulted into that rustic farmhouse with the olive groves, drinking a coffee with Mario? Hell no. He's drinking coffee with Francesca or Giulia or possibly Chiara.

Creating a perfect life abroad as an expat takes work. And I don't just mean the boring (yet oh-so-important) stuff like documents, work permits, insurance and healthcare. Take the language for instance. Yes, 'everyone speaks English' nowadays. It's the global language and whatnot. But if you think that this is true in a small, agricultural town in the south of Italy, then I'm afraid you are sadly mistaken. Want to get your tax code and rent your apartment? You'll need to speak Italian. Want to start talking to people and gradually build up that fantastic group of friends with whom you can drink fantastic Italian coffee? Erm, you'll need Italian. And probably the local dialect too (no, I wasn't aware Italy had dialects either. My local one seems to lack anything resembling a vowel). Want to order the right type of prosciutto and the right quantity of mozzarella? Well, you can see where I'm going with this. Yes, my personal experience (and there has been a lot of it, much of it humorous/painful/a bit of both) shows that a certain amount of gesticulating wildly and speaking in a loud, patronising way can often do the trick, but let's face it, people are going to be staring at you as it is, why embarrass yourself further? At least if you know how to say '100g of cooked ham' you can look at them smugly, safe in the knowledge that you are just brilliant. (That is until you receive 200g of raw ham instead. Bugger.)

And then of course, there are all those 'little' cultural differences, many of which I have experienced (and survived) as a typical, somewhat neurotic Brit. “Oh yes,” you think, “but it's OK because southern Italians are just so laid back, they don't take life too seriously, they just sit around chatting and drinking coffee and basically kicking back in their little dolce vita world”. Well, they do sit around chatting (and gesticulating...sometimes violently, and that's not even when they're mad), no one is rushing around and they do drink a LOT of coffee. But what happens when this relaxed lifestyle becomes TOO relaxed? Yes, that's right, they are LATE. And I don't just mean 5 minutes. Being English, I respect punctuality. Not to the extent of the Germans of course (to any Germans reading this: I am not disrespecting your punctuality. Believe me, I love how reliable Deutsche Bahn is) but let's just say I really appreciate people being on time. And Italians are not. Once I had to wait 40 minutes for a student to turn up for his lesson. If that's not bad enough, the lesson was only meant to be 60 minutes long. Enough said.

These linguistic difficulties and minor (but surprisingly annoying) cultural disparities, coupled with issues such as the inability to queue, the popularity of smoking (oh yes, they do it inside) and the excessive staring do not an easy expat transition make. In some cases, these things can be become downright frustrating. In case you're starting to wonder if I am always this pessimistic, I can assure you I'm not. Realistic? Yes. Helpful? Let's see. Because there are things that you can do to help achieve a happy expat experience in southern Italy or anywhere, Mario or no Mario.

Firstly, don't wear a watch. Or if you insist on wearing one, don't look at it. No one else looks at theirs. I honestly think many southern Italians (or southern Europeans in general) wear a nice watch simply because it looks good. Ahh yes! This is my new Rolex. Look how shiny and fabulous it is. Those pointy things and little numbers? Who knows what they could mean. Anyway, learning to accept this chronic lack of punctuality will take time. Breathe, count to ten (or even one hundred..) and let it go. I always carry a book in my bag. At any given moment I can pull it out and pass the time without getting too cross.

One of the great things about moving to a small town is the lack of other expats. “How on earth is this good?” You may be thinking. Well, it means that you have to learn the language. If you want a fulfilling expat experience, wherever you move to, get out there and start listening to people speak. Watch TV, turn on the radio, read magazines (even if at first you only look at the pictures. Not that I do that...) In other words, get stuck in. The language will come, and you're in luck, because southerners in particular are pretty patient. While they may chuckle at your atrocious pronunciation at first, fast forward a few months and they don't hesitate to complement you. And everyone likes a bit of praise now and then don't they?

When the language comes, so will the acquaintances. The nice lady who works in the fruit and veg shop. The owner of your favourite coffee bar. And eventually? Actual friends. But, as hard as it may be to hear, they won't come to you. It's your job to get to know them.

When it comes to the other issues, again, patience is key. I once spent an hour and a half waiting to get my hair cut. And I even had an appointment. I'm not going to lie, I was really squirming in my chair and seriously considering walking out. But in the end, the lady cut it really well and it only cost me €15. You can't argue with that. The same applies for 'queuing' (aka jostling about hoping to be the next person whilst getting elbowed and trodden on). You will eventually be served, and when you hurry off to meet your new friend, it won't matter, because everyone here is late. See? It really isn't that bad at all.

The last piece of advice I can give is to just prepare yourself. Be organised. Research the place you are planning on moving to and if it's a small town, make sure you are already used to small town living, or at least have some experience of it elsewhere. Because when you first arrive, it'll seem even smaller than it really is, due to how unfamiliar you are with everything and everyone. You can't just get in your car and drive to your friend's house for a rant and some chocolate biscuits (Italians do have great biscuits by the way, but they aren't quite the same as traditional chocolate digestives for dunking in tea. And don't even get me started on the 'tea'). Know that you may struggle at first. There may be unexpected issues and communication problems. The bureaucracy may drive you up the wall. But if you prepare yourself for these eventualities, you'll be able to settle in and start enjoying yourself much sooner.

As a British expat still living in a small, southern Italian town, I can assure you that even though things may start out a bit rocky, and you may experience levels of frustration previously unknown to you, the expat life is pretty damn good.

You can rest assured that, even though you may not find your sexy Mario, you'll definitely be drinking better coffee. And enjoying much more sunshine. And sampling some of the best pizza EVER. And meeting some friendly Italian mums who will definitely want to cook for you. And relaxing on beautiful beaches. And enjoying the late afternoon sun on your balcony... Alright alright, I'll leave it there.

About the author:

Amy Lucinda is a British expat living and working in beautiful southern Italy. She's a teacher, blogger and lover of all things related to gelato/cakes/chocolate. She enjoys sunshine, glossy magazines and coffee and dislikes waiting.
Blog address: http://sunshineandtomatoes.blogspot.it/ Twitter: @BritInItaly
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Contest Comments » There are 15 comments

Pino wrote 7 years ago:

Immagine realistica, solare, precisa, spiritosa, affettuosa, dei nostri piccoli "grandi" luoghi. I nostri luoghi,noi..si..siamo così..mille difetti mille contraddizioni ma sempre pronti ad accogliere le persone che se ne incantano. Brava! Commento intenzionalmente in "italiano".. (EDITOR ROUGH TRANSLATION: Picture realistic, solar, precise, witty, affectionate, our little "big" places. Our place, so many contradictions thousand faults but always ready to welcome people that if they enchant. Brava! Comment intentionally in "Italian ")

Irina wrote 7 years ago:

I found this piece extremely helpful as I am also moving to Southern Italy within a few months. I'm often terrified about it but following Amy's blog has imbued me with a grand sense of excitement about next year! I love her style of writing which is witty, fun and engaging and can't wait for her next update! :)

Alison Jackson wrote 7 years ago:

This is a brilliant blog - being old enough to by Amy's mum when hubby & I made the move to Italy almost 2 years ago, I can so identify with this one! The bit about moving somewhere where there are few expats is so true. And yes, I wear my Gucci watch for show - it stopped about a year ago! Keep up the blogging & the tweets Amy, I'm loving them:-)

Alison Jackson wrote 7 years ago:

As with anything Amy writes, I loved this as she portrays exactly what life is like for any expat relocating to a small community. She seems to have a natural gift to tell it like it is!

Linda wrote 7 years ago:

enjoy amy's stories and humor so much. great blog!

Kathy wrote 7 years ago:

Hard to pick which image I liked more: chiseled Mario or all that great food!

Jude Sturge wrote 7 years ago:

Fab blog, really good advice to those who wish to leave dear old England. Made me nostalgic, I spent 3 years in Sicilia, in a small village, great times & fab icecream.

Holly wrote 7 years ago:

Loved the blog - funny, witty and really gives you a sense of the location. Might be thinking of Southern Italy for my next move now...

Hugh wrote 7 years ago:

Great article - I'm becoming an expat next year and appreciate your insight!

Martha Wright wrote 7 years ago:

You write so well Amy! I feel like I'm sitting in a coffee shop watching the world go by in Southern Italy, feeling the warmth on my back :) I want to go to there! Lovely honest account of your expat life, really made me chuckle! xx

Claire wrote 7 years ago:

Great article! It's always good to have realistic expectations when living or even traveling to a foreign country. Well done, Amy!

Ina Dee wrote 7 years ago:

i love amys style of writing, that makes reading about serious issues/topics quite entertaining but i dont agree on the punctuality of deutsche bahn-just take one of those more expensive ICEs for example, they are always late...

Francesco wrote 7 years ago:

Excellent article, with an original, attention grabbing style and lots of personality. I like it a lot!

Neal wrote 7 years ago:

Hola from Spain! Keep up the fantastic work, Amy!! You may have even inspired me to write something myself soon. Love :)

Laura wrote 7 years ago:

Just read your blog aloud to my husband as we lay in bed on a grey November morning. I can almost taste that Italian coffee. Wonderful description. Keep writing please!

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