By Elisa Scarton Detti
I am absolutely and filthily jealous of city expats.
They live charmed lives full of English cinemas, multiethnic restaurants and pretty good job opportunities. It mightn’t sound like much, but after a couple of years living in small town Italy, even an undubbed screening of Twilight starts to look enticing.
Disclaimer: I actually did travel two hours to Rome to watch Breaking Dawn: Part 1 and was so delighted to be listening to the original audio, I still consider it one of my cinematic highlights.
Home for me is a small town in a grossly under considered section of Tuscany called the Maremma. Here I fly the expat flag as the only Aussie with a batty Scottish lady and a pretentious British chap. Neither are candidates for a coffee gossip sesh if there ever was one.
Assimilating to a new country is hard for anyone, but country expats face all the challenges without the network and support most city expats take for granted.
It’s taken me a decade to figure out how to survive in small-town Italy, so it’s only fair that I share the tips and tricks in case you’re feeling like a sea change too.
Find someone you can trust
The first step on your new journey in small town Italy is finding somewhere to live. We’ve published two articles on buying property in Italy that are great starting points.
Bear in mind that every town is different and every municipal has it’s own subtle nuances, so even if you’re a seasoned expat, it’s important to find someone on the ground who can help you with not just buying property, but settling in and ticking all the bureaucratic boxes.
It can be hard to trust a stranger, so ask around. Are there any expats in the general area that can recommend someone? If not, reach out to your local council. They regularly deal with surveyors, builders, accountants and lawyers, who, fingers’ crossed, will prove more reliable than any old name torn out of local paper.
Get out of the house
Congrats, you’re settled! But you definitely won't make friends sitting at home.
During my first year in the Maremma, I only spoke to three people: my husband, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law. It's enough to make anyone go stir crazy.
When expat friends are hard to come by, you have to rely on the locals. If you're Italian is shaky, don't worry, their English isn't much better. The key is to be seen. In most small towns, everyone has known everyone else for generations. They’re naturally suspicious of strangers, so if you want them to stop thinking of you as the crazy foreigner, you need to participate in small town life. That means buying a cornetto and coffee from the local bar regularly, shopping at the local clothing store and eating out at the same pizzeria. People need to know you exist before they can become your friends!
Coffee Italian style, Photo credit: the-magazine.org
Join a club
One of the fastest ways to assimilate in a new town is to join the local gym, art class, church group, choir, pro loco or whatever else they have on. Think of it as sneaking in through the back door. In other words, you can't make friends with an entire town at once, but you can worm you way into a small group.
After all, all you need is one local friend to introduce you to their friends and suddenly you have a whole bunch of people to invite to your dinner parties and, in my case, a whole bunch of new Vegemite converts.
Start an English group
We expats have one very valuable skill: English. Whether you want to teach it or share it freely is up to you, but it's a commodity that no Italian town can do without.
When I first started teaching English, one of my students told me they didn't even know I lived in Manciano. That hurt because I'd been living in the town for 5 years.
Since then I’ve made plenty of new friends across a range of age groups. As an added bonus, I’m more confident speaking Italian because I get to practise it someone other than my husband and his parents.
If you're confident in your skills, head to your nearest typography and print out a few flyers. Otherwise team up with a local sports club or gym. Most have a space they'll rent out to you for a few euros a week and they'll give your fledging English business some much needed credibility, not to mention the small town connections you need to get it off the ground.
Don’t give up
You won't assimilate in a week, month or sometimes even six months, but that's no reason to give up.
Reach out to other expats you know and ask them for advice. It takes a lot of courage to make friends, especially if you don't have kids.
Be persistent. It might feel stupid, but play on what makes you different. Some of the first local friends I made were people I invited over for a home cooked dinner of green curry and pavlova. A shared love of international food is a great stepping stone to friendship.