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Interview with Caroline – an American expat living in Verona

Updated 7 Apr 2020

Caroline is an American architect, cat lover, spritz aficionado, occasional translator, doodler and traveller living in Verona, Italy. She writes about life in Italy as a foreigner, from immigration and practical information to travel, food, culture, events and everyday life on her blog, Quotidian Italian.

Read more about expat life in Italy in our Expat Arrivals Italy country guide.

About CarolineCaroline Italy

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: United States

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Verona, Veneto, Italy

Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved to Italy in 2015, almost five years ago now. I first lived in Mantova, Lombardy, then Florence, Tuscany, and have now been in Verona for a year.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Yes

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: Alone

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved as a student. I enrolled in a Master’s course in Architectural Design and History, which took place in Mantova. Upon graduating, I found work at an architecture studio in Florence, then later moved to Verona, where my boyfriend is from. Now, I am working as an architect here in Verona.

Living in Verona

Q: What do you enjoy most about Verona? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the US?
A: Verona is a beautiful small historic city in northern Italy, crossed by the winding Adige river and bordered by lush vineyards and foothills. You have easy access to both Lake Garda to the west and the mountains to the north. The quality of life in Verona is great. I don’t need to drive here – thank God, because Italian driving is insane. I can bike, walk and take the bus. The air is clean, the weather is sunny and mild, fresh, high-quality food (and wine) is affordable and accessible, and the cost of living isn’t terribly high. The history here is fascinating, and I love that I get to work in historic contexts and buildings as an architect.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: The bureaucratic aspect of living as a foreigner in Italy is the worst part. Renewing the residence permit each year is agonisingly slow and always confusing. Every government office says different things from the other. Real information is hard to come by and usually takes waiting in line for hours to find, not to mention that every city and region makes their own rules. 

It takes a whole lot of patience and going piano piano, one step at a time. I miss the efficiency and friendliness of the US offices and companies, the multicultural aspect of life in the US and my friends and family back home.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The biggest thing was adjusting to the schedule. Almost all shops and offices completely close during the lunch hour, which is 12:30pm to 3pm-ish, sometimes even later. It makes it impossible to get shopping or errands done during your lunch break. 

Aside from that, the lines (or lack thereof) in bars, post offices, shops or wherever you go are an issue. Italians seem very against forming an orderly line, preferring a mass pushing or shoving crowd where you have to defend your place or get elbowed out. 

Another thing was the ‘curiosity’ or ‘nosiness’, depending on your attitude, of the Italians, usually regarding food. I found myself being asked what I was going to eat for lunch and dinner, how I was going to prepare it and even where I got the ingredients. Food is serious business here.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to the US? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Italy?
A: Cost of living here overall is cheaper than in the US, although salaries are lower. For rent in Verona, splitting a small two-bedroom apartment, I pay EUR 325 a month, plus utility bills, which are a lot more expensive here. Grocery shopping is done between different speciality stores. The fruttivendolo for fruits and vegetables, bakery, butcher, alimentari for fresh cheese and ham, cantina for wine, etc. This means getting higher quality products for much less than what you’d pay in the US. 

Electronics and speciality items are more expensive here. Gasoline costs an arm and a leg, but train travel is an inexpensive and convenient option. Healthcare is incredibly affordable and almost free.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Verona? What is your most memorable experience of using Verona’s transport system?
A: 8/10 and overall positive. It’s a small enough city that you can get around by bike and even walking. I sometimes take the bus to get to my office, which is near the Arena (it’s about a 30-minute walk otherwise). I live just a few steps from the stop, and it’s a quick 10-minute trip total. The city has also recently jumped on the electric scooter bandwagon, and you can find them parked pretty much everywhere in the city, along with the rental bikes.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Verona? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: 9/10. Italians and foreigners in Italy with residence permits have access to universal health care without needing expensive insurance plans through their jobs. This past year, I signed up for the Tessera Sanitaria, or health care card, which gives me access to a medico di base or base doctor that I can make an appointment with for free. All I had to do was present my residence permit that proves I’m working to the local ASL (Azienda Sanitaria Locale), and a week later I had the card.

Students and non-workers can also apply for it by paying a yearly fee at the post office. Blood tests and labs aren’t free but are affordable. The only downside here in Italy is that you have to be more proactive and in charge of your own health. If you go get bloodwork done, it’ll probably be at a different clinic or hospital than where your doctor is. Once you get the results, you’ll have to bring them yourself back to your doctor for interpretation rather than the lab sending it to them for you.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Verona or Italy? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: I would consider Verona a very safe city. I’ve never felt unsafe here, even walking at night. Some parts of Veronetta can get sketchy, but nothing too bad.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Verona? What different options are available for expats?
A: 7/10. Overall, the housing in Verona is good quality, and the cost is average, although it’s been on the rise lately. I had some difficulty finding an apartment for rent because the options in the city centre were too expensive for my budget and didn’t offer much space. Think of a studio apartment with no closet for over EUR 700 a month! In the end, we found a great option and were lucky to rent directly from the owner. 

In Italy, there are different types of rental agreements. For example, the three-plus-two or four-plus-four: a three-year contract with the option to renew for another two years or a four-year contract with the option to renew for another four years. It’s rarer to find a one-year contract, plus it’s usually considered transitory and reserved for students, without the possibility of declaring official residence, which I needed for my residence permit. 

I would recommend foreigners check the Italian rental websites directly (Immobiliare, Subito, Mioaffitto, etc.) to avoid scams and tourist prices, which unfortunately happen a lot. Try to find listings rented directly by the owners instead of by agenzia or a rental agency to avoid paying high agency fees.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: The city centre (centro storico) is lovely but gets crowded in the summer and can be quite expensive. We’re in the Veronetta area which I love, just across the Adige to the east, which is still considered part of the centre but more peaceful.

The Borgo Trento and Valdonega neighbourhoods across the Adige to the west and northwest are beautiful with lots of historic buildings, but a bit more on the expensive side. Borgo Venezia, the neighbourhood to the east of Veronetta, is a good area for families and less expensive.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Verona?
A: I think that the Veronesi are overall very kind and tolerant. I’ve never experienced any discrimination, although I did have a stare-down once with a lady in the post office who flat-out refused to help me. Not sure if it was related to me being a foreigner or just the post office being terrible. 

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: It was easy for me because I moved as a student, so I immediately met a lot of other fellow students at the university and formed an awesome group of friends.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: My friends are a mix of Italians and foreigners. Our course was done in English, so we had the unique chance to meet people from all over the world. Meeting friends here isn’t hard; you just have to put yourself out there and don’t be shy to speak Italian. I’d recommend other foreigners in Verona to get out and join a gym, yoga class or Italian class to meet people. 

Working in Verona

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I got a student visa from the Italian Consulate in Chicago: definitely no simple task, but doable. I did this myself – armed with patience, persistence and lots of wine. Once I was here and studying, I renewed my stay permit to study for the duration of the course, which was a couple of years. Once I graduated, I converted the permit from study to work. I’ve written more in-depth about this process on my blog for anyone interested.

I was naïve in thinking that it would be easy to get a work permit once I had a job, but it actually was a painfully complicated process. In the end, I had to become a fully licensed architect and get a self-employed type work permit. I know it sounds unbelievable, because it is. 

I would suggest anyone interested in moving to Italy to take the route I did: get a visa to enter as a student, then once you’re here and have made some contacts and learned Italian, you can find a job and convert it to a work permit. Otherwise, you’d need to have already found a job contract, housing and everything before moving, which seems nearly impossible unless you’re doing a specific programme. 

Q: What is the economic climate in Verona like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Finding a job in architecture in Verona is not the easiest task since the city is relatively small, and there are tons of architects and lots of competition. I’d say I spammed about four billion studios in the area with my CV before getting any interviews. At some interviews I went to, I was even made ‘offers’ of working for free – no grazie. It’s not impossible, but just takes some time. I’ve found a great job here, but let’s just say that making it work in Italy takes a certain level of tenacity.

After graduation, I did find a job right away in Florence, where there are lots more opportunities, along with other bigger cities such as Milan and Torino. Being an English speaker is a big advantage and led to my first job, but speaking Italian is necessary too. Having an Italian degree also helped quite a bit, in my field at least. I don’t think I could’ve even landed a job without it. 

The most useful resources for my job searches have been the local and national professional organisations’ (i.e. Order of the Architects) websites, where job opportunities are posted regularly. For people in other sectors, I’d recommend a quick search of these types of organisations in your city to get started.

Q: How does the work culture differ from the US? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Verona or Italy? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Work culture in Italy is very different from the US, the main difference being the rigidity of the job market. It’s hard to get hired and to get fired, so young people have trouble getting started in their careers. Employers are hesitant to hire and often propose unpaid ‘trial periods’ at the beginning of a new job. People have the idea that Italians don’t work as much as Americans, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Italians take pride in their work and strive to do their best. Okay, maybe not in the context of certain government offices...

One thing I appreciate about the work culture in Italy is that it’s less formal and less ‘corporate’, probably because offices are way smaller here than in the US. There aren’t really dress codes or formalities to follow. I feel like you’re freer to be yourself. I often have conversations with bosses and co-workers that don’t have anything to do with work (mostly about food – again, food rules here), and people here aren’t just defined by their job or their salary.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Verona or Italy?
A: My biggest piece of advice is to learn Italian as soon as possible – start now. If you’re even thinking about going, it’s better to learn as much as you can before you arrive. It’ll make everything 10 times easier and make your experience 1,000,000 times better. I’d also say be patient and just accept that things are different from back home, and that’s okay. Have an open mind and enjoy the things that make Italy, Italy – there are so many!

► Interviewed April 2020

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