Want to be an American expat in Rome? Here are 10 tips to live by
You’re standing in line for 60 minutes to pay an electric bill you don’t understand and think the postal worker taking your money is speaking medieval Bulgarian instead of Italian. You then go stand outside for 45 minutes waiting for a bus that should’ve arrived 30 minutes ago. You return home to a freezing or sweltering apartment, depending on the season, and cruise the web looking at other flats more suitable for Hobbits than Americans.
Welcome to life as an American expat in Rome.
I understand the appeal. You’re bored with your job. You hate seeing the U.S. turn into the Fourth Reich. You’re reaching that make-or-break age where you either change everything or continue your Bataan Death March into what’s left of Medicare or onto a fairway in Florida. You spent the best week of your life in Italy on vacation. You still look at that photo of St. Peter’s, back lit at midnight. Or you’ve read my blog for the last five years.
Let’s quit everything and move to Rome!
If this is you, I’m here to help.
As I wrote in my recent fifth-anniversary blog, my Rome honeymoon has worn off. However, the long list of positives (In fact, I list 48 in the blog) far outweigh the irritation of waiting for a bus. I love Rome. Retiring here was the best decision of my life, and I’ve never been happier. I’ll never live anywhere else.
But I’ve learned a few things along the way. You won’t find these tips in “Lonely Planet” or on a brochure at your nearest Italian consulate. They’re a survival guide that serves as a continuous loop through my brain as I walk the narrow cobblestone streets of my favorite city in the world.
I’m not the only one. Rome has Americans living here either on government contracts or as students, entrepreneurs or retirees like me. The Queen Bee of American expats is Patrizia Di Gregorio. She was born to Italians in the small town of Piedimonte Matese in Campania, moved to Schenectady, N.Y., as a baby and returned here in 2000. A year later, she started Expats Living in Rome, a terrific Meetup group that gathers expats from around the world and some Italians every Tuesday night for Italian and English lessons, a buffet dinner, lots of wine and beer and international conversations.
The group’s Facebook page has 21,000 followers.
Now, 47, she has given more advice to Americans in Rome than the pope. We exchanged anecdotes about the ugly Americans we’ve seen. I once had dinner with one acquaintance who ordered meatballs and was aghast when they served her polpette, little dry hunks of meat. Spaghetti and meatballs is served in Rome, New York, not Rome, Italy. Di Gregorio talked about how Americans can’t find anything to do from 1-4 p.m. every day when Italians have their pausa, the afternoon break.
I asked her how many Americans she has seen come here and not make it.
“Plenty,” she said, facing a big room full of tables in the Rec23 cocktail lounge where instructors are teaching Italian to expats and English to Italians. “One, the document situation is hard. I just feel like a little bit of Americans are spoiled. They feel they can live anywhere because they’re American.
“Any immigration, you’re going to have that. But Americans think they should bypass that because they’ve been stamped American. ‘I’m American! I can do whatever I want.’”
That’s a big mistake, my fellow Americans. Life here is hard. The language barrier is massive. The bureaucracy is mind boggling. The social scene is polar opposite of the U.S. You need to be independent, confident and adventurous. Anything less and you won’t last three months.
We must realize that we are no different than the legally documented West Africans and Albanians and Syrians. When I renew my visa at the Questura, the police station that documents immigrants, I am no better than all the others with different-colored skin sitting around me. We all have one thing in common:
A willingness to do about anything to live here.
“Expats need to understand they’re immigrants regardless if you put the fancy word ‘expats’ next to it,” Di Gregorio said. “Any immigrant living anywhere, especially if you don’t know the language, you have to work harder in order to make it. And in this country, compared to the UK and the U.S. you’re not going to make as much.
“And you have to work harder to make that little bit they’re going to give you.”
I won’t give tips on finding a job. That’s a whole separate blog and, being retired, I have little experience job hunting. What follows is a guide to get you started once you arrive. Read it, clip it, keep it handy in times when you want to smash your head against a 2,000-year-old marble statue or execute the entire population.
Call it the American Expat’s 10 Commandments:
1. Learn Italian. This. Can. Not. Be. Emphasized. Enough. I’ve written about this before. Many Romans know some English. Some are conversational. Few are fluent. If you don’t know Italian, you’ll starve. In five years of shopping in two charming open-air public markets that sell the freshest, most natural food in the world, I’ve met two people who speak English.
I know people who have gotten by without Italian. However, they surround themselves with other expats or Italians who speak English. I don’t want to just talk to a New Yorker or a tour guide or a hotel clerk. I want to talk to my fishmonger, my barista, the guys in my gym. That’s where you get a sense of the Roman soul.
Take lessons. Language schools and tutors are all over Rome. But the best way to learn is either live with Italians, get a job where you speak Italian or get an Italian lover. You either live it, work it or sleep it.
For five years I’ve done scambios, language exchanges where you meet a local who wants to learn English. You speak Italian for an hour and English for an hour and correct each other. But women, be cautious.
Some Italian men use them to meet women. You’ll know when they ask definitions for body parts.
2. Find a local bar. In Italy, “bar” means cafe. It’s where you go to get your daily coffee. Whether it’s cappuccino or caffe macchiato or caffe schiumato, discover your morning poison and go there frequently. Within three visits the local barista will know your name and your coffee preference. Soon you’ll be in daily conversations with him about current events and meet other regulars around your neighborhood. You can practice your Italian and start feeling like a true local.
Plus, you’ll drink the best coffee of your life.
Just this morning I was across the street at my Romagnani Caffe. I talked to Davide, my barista and fellow AS Roma fan, about Wednesday’s 7-1 humiliation at Fiorentina. He was very impressed with the new Italian word I learned.
3. Buy a Metro pass. Do NOT buy a car. It’s not true Romans drive like drunk Formula 1 drivers. They do have brakes. They do stop, occasionally. The problem with cars is the expense. Owning a car adds about 20 percent to your yearly budget. Gas here is about 1.50 euro a liter. That’s about $5.70 a gallon. Besides, you’ll need the extra cash for the shrink after going crazy trying to find parking spots every day. This city is nearly 3,000 years old. It was not laid out with parking lots in mind.
The Metro pass gets you on the bus, subway, tram and regional trains. They go everywhere in the metro area. The pass is only 250 euros and I average about 500 trips on public transportation a year. At 1.50 euros for a single-trip ticket, that means I’m saving about 500 euros a year on transport.
That’s a lot of cappuccinos.
4. Find a rental agency. Expats move around a lot. They tire of roommates. In my case, they tire of landladies. You seek better contracts. You seek better neighborhoods. My 65-square-meter apartment for 1,000 euros a month in the “chic” neighborhood of Monteverde is my third home in five years. That’s not many for an expat.
The Internet is full of rental websites showing reams of vacant apartments in Rome. I’ve gone that route and found nothing that didn’t make me cringe, laugh or duck to get inside the tiny doorways.
Good rental agencies have the best properties available. I highly recommend Property International (firstname.lastname@example.org). They found my last two homes here (and my home when I lived here from 2001-03). Others they showed were very livable. The finder’s fee is one month’s rent but you’ll forget you paid it a week after you move in. Plus, they serve as a liaison between you and your landlord. That is invaluable.
5. Join Meetup groups. Romans are extremely open, curious and friendly, despite their cold reputation elsewhere in Italy. However, it’s somewhat difficult to come in social contact with them. Rome is a restaurant town; it’s not a bar town. People go out in groups, not individually. Bar hopping does not exist.
Meetups are casual groups united by common interests. I not only belong to Meetups Living in Rome but also Language Exchange (similar to Expats but different day), Internations (international clientele in business community), Rome Explorers (hiking and history) and Rome Wine and Food Lovers (wine tastings and restaurants). You meet at regular intervals in various places around the city. I meet new people from around the world every week. There are Meetup groups for all interest in the city (https://www.meetup.com/cities/it/rm/roma/).
For women it’s a safe haven from men who see Italian women as not nearly as sexual as they dress. Di Gregorio said her Expats Meetup is about 58 percent women and 42 men.
“I think expat women are targeted by these people with no life, no social skills and want to trap somebody for an hour and a half,” she said. “They don’t intend to meet up, period. They want to go exclusive to a small bar and just a you-and-I kind of thing, like a date. I do suggest not to do that because if you meet people at the event, if you like them you can continue to talk but at least you met the person and decide if you want to waste another hour and a half of your life.”
6. Buy Italian clothes. When you pack for your overseas move, bring a fraction of your wardrobe. Sell or give away the rest. You don’t want to walk around Rome looking like you walked out of an L.L. Bean catalog or a sporting goods store. It pained me to get rid of my college sweatshirt collection. But I look like a tourist enough. The last thing I want to do is be seen near the Colosseum wearing a University of Oregon hoodie.
Italy remains the international fashion capital and has the best clothes in the world. Rome is built for shopping. Entire streets, such as Via Cola di Rienzo and Via del Corso are lined with clothes stores.
Keep in mind the prices are geared toward female tourists so it’s not cheap. However, they’re also priced for local men. Thus, men’s clothes are not expensive. Twelve of my 14 pairs of shoes are Italian and each pair was so comfortable I could walk the old Appian Way as soon I walked out the door.
Also, Italy has saldi (sales) every January and July, lasting about a month. Stock up twice a year and you’re set for years down the road.
7. Get Rick Zullo’s Permesso di Soggiorno blog. Zullo is a friend and was the godfather of Rome bloggers (Rick’s Rome, www.rickzullo.com) until he moved to Florida four years ago. Before he left he wrote a terrific guide (https://rickzullo.com/permesso-signup/) on how to acquire a Permesso di Soggiorno, the holy grail of expats. It’s the visa you need to remain in the country. You must get it to remain Italy for a year and then renew it every year or two. It is wildly confusing.
Zullo’s blog is not. It takes you step-by-step, from going to the post office for the form to your Questura appointment and meeting face to face with immigration officials deciding your fate. In between, it covers every step in a concise, humorous manner. You’ll enjoy reading it. And you’ll be grateful when you walk out with that card that makes you legal.
Matteo Salvini’s immigration Nazis can’t touch you.
8. Learn patience. Americans are notoriously impatient. I was notoriously impatient even for an American. Everything takes a lot longer in Rome. Good Lord, you wait in a post office to pay your electric bill. It took me 48 days to get my Internet transferred from my previous apartment. PosteItaliane delivers packages to you — kind of when it feels like it. You get better odds in Las Vegas.
The most important Italian word you will learn is tranquillo. It’s just like it sounds. Stay calm. It’ll get done. Just give it time. Take a newspaper or your Italian homework to the post office. Make friends in your corner bar where you’ll work waiting for the Internet. Don’t go postal on PosteItaliane. You’re in Rome. What, you’ve got a corporate meeting to get to?
9. Take a cooking class. I’m not a good cook. However, I’m a good cook in Rome. The ingredients are so fresh and so tasty and so healthy, I can butcher a pasta dish and still make it better than anything I made in the U.S. Once you peruse the open markets, where everything is shipped farm fresh that day, you’ll want to cook.
Cooking classes are all over the city all year. In one I learned to cook zucca ravioli. I hate pumpkin. Pumpkins are made to be carved, not eaten. I now like zucca ravioli.
You’ll be surprised how much weight you’ll lose. Between the natural ingredients, smaller portions and all the walking you do, you’ll get in the best shape of your life.
Plus, learning to cook is a must for economic survival. Rome restaurants aren’t terribly expensive but eating out every night will end your retirement — or your stay — in a hurry. You don’t want to wind up eating cold pasta on the banks of the Tiber.
So take pride in a sink full of dirty dishes.
10. Leave an impression. I consider myself a mini ambassador to the United States. Many people I meet around Italy have never met an American. How they view me when I leave is how they may view Americans in general.
Americans have a reputation of being loud (I’m guilty as charged), arrogant (not anymore) and fat (nope). Be conscious about being nice. It isn’t hard. Italians are very curious people. They’ll always ask you questions about your life. Ask them about theirs. Show an interest in their culture, their holidays, their families.
Do not talk about money. Do not make your first question, What do you do for a living? Do not criticize the culture. (Although verbally filleting the public services and government corruption is fair game. You’ll sound like a local.)
Men, respect women as you’ve never respected them before. Roman women have evolved. They’re independent, ambitious, strong. The men still live with their moms. The women are dying for men who respect them for who they are and not just what they look like.
When you date, don’t touch them. Wait a few dates. Have deep cosmic conversations with them. Cook them dinner. Barring unmasked physical flaws, overt cheapness or wearing a University of Oregon hoodie, you’ll likely see them again. And if you do, don’t cheat on them. Roman women are dying for loyalty. It’s a rare quality here.
Well, there you have it. Hope that helps. Living in Rome remains a paradise for me. It’s a great life when your biggest stress is getting enough foam in your cappuccino, when your biggest decision is to drink red or white wine. So keep staring at that photo of St. Peter’s.
It still isn’t that far away.