An expat in Italy – guest post


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Helen is originally from Cornwall, UK, and spent some years in London before moving to Dublin, Ireland in 2003. There, she was swept off her feet by an Italian – Mr M. In late 2013 they packed up and moved to Italy in search of sunshine and great wine. Now she is an expat in Italy where she blogs about her initiation into the Italian lifestyle, language and culture at Truly, Madly Italy. You can also follow her on Facebook  and Twitter

A new life as a expat in Italy – a not-so-dolce vita

What happens when a girl from Cornwall meets a boy from Rome, in Dublin?  Having met in 2006, we married in early 2009, then had a baby girl at the end of 2010. We were quite settled, having bought a house north of Dublin. But, with a young baby to care for, we missed the support of family. Sundays always seemed hard;  friends would be with family for roast dinners, but we were trying to find ways to amuse our little girl. Before long, it became clear that we would try to move closer to family – either mine or his – and that left us two choices, Rome or Cornwall. In the end, we chose Rome.  I would become an expat in Italy.


Sadly, it’s not really Rome (he lied to me!) but a city south-east of the capital, Frosinone.

frosinone italy photo
Photo by mondopinguino

This was my husband’s home town – not exactly a beauty-spot to become an expat in Italy, but we were fortunate to have the offer of a rent free apartment.  A part of the original family home, it had been rented out to students since his parents had moved out to the countryside. This was the clincher;  having somewhere to live meant our outgoings would be minimal and we could therefore take time finding work (not to mention our feet). Neither of us had jobs lined up in advance, other than the possibility of some English-teaching for me. Mr M. worked as a horse-vet in Ireland, a career that is almost non-existent in Italy, so he was looking at a change of species, if not a change of job altogether. I’d originally worked in theatre, then had trained as a yoga-instructor, but I planned to concentrate my efforts on learning Italian for at least the first six months, with maybe some teaching to keep me going.

Why become an expat in Italy?

It wasn’t just family that drew us to Italy. There were the obvious attractions – better weather, nicer lifestyle, the food. We also envisaged opening our own business here, along the lines of a small-holding come B&B (an agriturismo – with a yoga studio on the side). 16 months’ in, things have unfolded and developed in all kinds of ways, and the over-riding feeling at this point in the ‘journey’ is simply one of relief – that we’ve made it this far, have an income and plans-in-progress.

Dreams vs Reality

Living as an expat in Italy is an experience. I wasn’t particularly well prepared, and I can see now that having Mr M’s family (good jobs, beautiful houses) as the role models for our move was a tad delusory. The reality about working in Italy is that unless you work for the state in some capacity – in teaching, or the medical profession, or in one of the various police forces – you’re looking at low wages, insecure contracts and even uncertainty around getting paid. These factors are driving young people abroad quicker than you can say ‘Ryanair. The Premier Renzi’s recent ‘Jobs Act’ promises better conditions for both employees and employers, and a minimum wage is apparently on the way, so there are tenuous hopes that the country will soon emerge from this long dark tunnel.

Italy’s small businesses

The real wealth here – in every sense of the word – lies in Italy’s small businesses, and one of the pleasures of living here is seeing the kind of businesses in operation that I haven’t seen in the UK since the 80’s. On the ground floor of our apartment block there is a butcher, beside us a newsagent, bar and dry-cleaners. Down the road, the Cartoleria – stationery & gift/toy shop, the Tessuti & Tendaggi shop – fabric & curtains, the pizzeria forno al legno, even a Miele appliances repair-shop (though I’d question if that’s not a front for something else…)

English teaching – and zero hours contracts

I did make a brief foray into the English-teaching field, first at a language school, but a combination of low pay, zero resources, and humourless colleagues left me grateful it was only till term-end. I was told immediately by the owner that the pay-rate was €25 an hour “but I can only pay you €11.50” which was somewhat baffling.

She was referring to the many deductions that make up an Italian busta-paga (payslip). However, I was being employed on a 5-hour-per-week contract, and simply couldn’t grasp that I would be fully-taxed (around 45%) on so few hours. Five hours that were helpfully spread out over 4 days so it was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to bring home about €65! Still, at the beginning, when you’ve zero income and ever-decreasing savings, you gotta be grateful (kind of) for whatever’s going.

I was later offered teaching on an adult’s course, through a reputable English-teaching association (the Italian arm thereof), working a few hours weekly over 6 months. This was, overall, a positive experience. Taking on a new environment in a foreign language is all good and necessary….but so is being paid! Four  months’ on since the course ended, and having worked several extra (unpaid) hours for exams and administration, I have just received the first half of my wages. I knew it was to be paid in a lump-sum – seemingly with that type of ‘occasional’ contract, wages are usually paid this way – but to receive just half of it, four months’ after the event, (and not far off a year since I started the course) is, to me, a joke.

Mr M’s been quite fortunate, relatively speaking; he did work experience with a small-animal vet, and that led to him being taken on, casually (alas no contract). The positive thing is that he’s been able to cross-over from horses to small animals with relative ease. Though he, too, has fallen foul of the ‘occasional contract’ nightmare; last summer he took on some extra veterinary work for the State, a job that was completed last autumn. He’s still waiting on the pay-cheque.

Work for yourselves

For us, it’s clear that we will only survive here, in the long-term, by working for ourselves. I’m in the process of setting up a home studio in order to continue my voiceover work, as thanks to the internet, I can live here but work for clients anywhere in the world. In addition, my blog has gone from being primarily a journal (and therapy!) to becoming a resource for other expats in Italy and learners of Italian.

Mr M may well open his own practice down the line, and elements of our original plan remain; perhaps we will get that country pile with yoga studio, vets’ clinic and a pig out the back! Who knows? We’re going with the flow and doing what it takes to make it work.

Helen really wishes she'd read this before movig to Italy
Helen really wishes she’d read this before moving to Italy

When in Rome…

Ci vuole tempo

as the Italians would say. It takes time, lots of time. From the seriously crazy driving, to the stray dogs on the street, to the litter all over the place and graffiti everywhere, there’s a lot to adjust to and a lot not to like.

Italy is famous for its complex bureaucracy, and this is a major thing to cope with and get one’s head around. It’s both complicated and opaque. When I first moved to Ireland I thought things were difficult – that now seems laughable. By the time I left Ireland, there was almost nothing that couldn’t be done online, from taxes to insurance to ordering a cab. Here, mountains of paperwork are still the order of the day, with photocopying and form-filling and ‘evidence’ being required at every turn. And I think I’ve probably got it easy, as I’m an EU citizen. According to John Hooper, author of The Italians, simplicity is viewed with great suspicion here in Italy.

If something is too straightforward, there has to be a catch. (Note from Bex: Oh Helen!  It’s so true in Greece too!)

And there are, apparently, perfectly valid socio-historical reasons for this tendency. None of which make your fourth time standing in line at the Ufficio Motorizzazione (Motor Office) any easier!

But back to the positive

With spring in the air it’s easier to focus on the good stuff of Italy. Grazie Dio! The weather is gorgeous, as there are actual seasons here – yes, I WILL wear my summer skirts! Yes,we WILL eat outside most nights and spend many weekends at the beach in the coming months. Not bad. We really are getting the lifestyle that we craved.

Our little girl now speaks Italian better than me, and though it’s hard work, my own grasp of la bella lingua is slowly improving, which means I can tick off one of my life-long goals – to speak a second language.

Nowhere is perfect, Helen! (i.e. “get a grip girl!”)

as my blog-followers have often reminded me.

To me, it really is a simple case of knowing the pros and cons, then making a decision and getting on with it. I’m proud of the move we made, and proud that we have got this far. With a little luck, we may even get to taste that dolce vita.

Note from Bex: Posting this, I found myself nodding in agreement!  Bureaucracy, people being NICE to you? Things EASY to do?  Hmmm, this is suspicious, don’t trust it.  I think it’s a Mediterranean thing: they only trust things immediately within their circle – and yes, history plays a vital role in formation of this thought process.

Having said that, the Greeks – once they like you – can not do enough for you.  Thanks for sharing this Helen, it’s been a fascinating read.


  1. Nice essay, Helen! Yes, I agree with Rebecca on that Mediterranean thing. 😉 So interesting about culture. Anyway, I love Italy and I hope you find the dolce vita you are looking for!

  2. Thanks for reading Marissa; yes everyday I learn something new about Italian/mediterranean culture. I think getting a real understanding of the culture and people is possibly a greater task than learning their language! I had no idea this would be the case, but for me it’s true. My parents are here (their first time in Italy) at the moment, and as we’re out and about I find myself ‘interpreting’ how things work, what things mean, why things are done a certain way…and it’s all cultural differences. However – try explaining to a Brit why at a junction with 5 intersections, there’s no roundabout or traffic lights, or even a dotted white line to make a bit of order! Or why, on a beautiful, sunny Spring day, a child is wrapped up in wool hat, hood and gloves to keep warm!

  3. This was very interesting. I’ve recently started my own blog on everything Italian, and my retirement plan is to have something to do with Italy. I have 11 years until that time, but love thinking about it now. I just returned from Florence, and my love of Italy has grown even more.

  4. WoW Helen, Amazing to catch up with you here — and to read your fabulous essay, it was like sitting down over a glass of wine with you, and hearing all that’s been happening. Tamsin is absolutely gorgeous and how refreshing to read such a truthful and well-observed piece about the challenges of getting up and running in Italy — but, my! what an adventure!. Fantastic! And you’ve become a writer too — I”ve just had a great time over on your blog! So, so pleased for you and look forward to keeping up with your Italian adventures on

  5. Hello Orna,

    Great that you liked Helen’s piece. Check her site Truly Madly Italy dot com – she has some great pieces on there.
    Hope you enjoy Life Beyond Borders too. I recently read your story in “Outside the Box: Women Writing Women” and thoroughly enjoyed it.