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Interview with Hope – an American expat who lived in Florence

Updated 8 Apr 2020

Hope, originally from New York, and her husband decided to save up and travel. Together, they travelled to Mexico, Japan and Europe. There are things she loved and things she found difficult to deal with in Italy, but she still always has an interesting story to tell, be it about food, festivities or a trip to the Italian emergency room. She shares her experiences on her blog, New Mexico to Italy, and can also be found on Twitter.

Read more about expat life in Florence in our Expat Arrivals Moving to Florence city guide.

About HopeHope Italy

Q: Where are you initially from?
A: New York

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Q: When did you move here?
A: Moved to New Mexico originally in 1994 and moved back here in 2013 after over a year of living in Florence, Italy.

Q: Did you move to Florence alone or with a spouse/family?
A: With my husband, Steve

Q: Why did you move to Florence; what do you do?
A: On New Year’s Eve, 2002, we came up with a five-year plan to save and then quit everything and travel for a year. I grew up on welfare and didn’t even have a passport at that time – I got my first one in 2006. We did just that and travelled from 2008. We went to Mexico, Japan and all over Europe. We loved it so much but couldn’t afford to do that again. So, in 2012, Steve went to the international school’s job fair in London and got I think nine job offers. It was a no-brainer when he got the one in Florence, so we moved there!

Living in Florence

Q: What do you enjoy most about Florence? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the US?
A: I think the easiest way to answer these questions is to take some things from a post I did on my blog about what I appreciate and am yet to appreciate about living in Italy.

Of course, Italian food and art are both fabulous and big deals here. The fact that I can walk the streets by myself at night and feel safe is also pretty darn cool. The festivities are great. It is a treat to be able to walk out your front door and happen upon a street market, festival, musical performance and more just about any weekend year-round, and some weekdays as well.

I appreciate my health card. It is truly amazing. I’m an immigrant without a job, and yet I have this nifty little card that entitles me to free or cheap healthcare. Compared to the USD 450 a month we were paying for employer-subsidised health insurance back in the States, not to mention the very high co-pays, it’s pretty darn civilised.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: There are things I have yet learned to appreciate… The inefficiency of offices, including post offices, government offices, banks, etc. You must usually wait between 30 to 90 minutes to accomplish most things and much longer for big tasks like immigration. I have heard stories from folks who waited seven hours at that office.

You must also be careful not to get run over on the sidewalk. I have almost been hit by a car several times, never mind the number of times by motorini (scooters). And speaking of the sidewalk, there is dog poop all over it. It cuts down on my ability to appreciate the beautiful architecture as, should you take your eyes off the ground for a minute, you will surely step in it.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Florence? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: People here are loud. They yell. And they honk. And not the little quick tap of the horn to get someone’s attention. I mean the loud, incessant honk that you’d be too embarrassed to do back in the States. Also, smoking here is so prevalent, though not quite as much as in Japan. You can’t walk down the street without inhaling second-hand smoke, and even your own home will eventually succumb to it due to all your neighbours who smoke. Maybe pasta and wine counteract nicotine and tar…

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to the US? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Italy?
A: I think the food in Italy is much less expensive, especially the produce at the markets. And, of course, healthcare. I also appreciate the fact that prices are what they say they are. For example, when I signed up for the basic EUR 19 cable package, I naturally assumed that we’d be paying more with added inexplicable fees, like in the US. Nope, every month, I am equally surprised to see exactly 19 euros on the bill.

It’s also great not having to tip. Now, I know your guidebooks may encourage you to at least round up and leave the change, and maybe that’s expected in touristy places, but I promise you, I have never seen an Italian leave a tip. If you pay attention to whether there is a coperto (cover charge) listed on the menu, which is usually EUR 1.50 to 2.50 per person, then you will know exactly how much your meal will cost.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Florence? 
A: The public transport in Florence was good. There are buses, not metros like in other cities, though honestly, I walked everywhere. The best thing is the trains – you can get all over Italy and Europe without having to own a car.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Florence? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regard to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: I never had any major medical needs. I did see an English expat, Dr Kerr, in Florence a few times and highly recommend him. 

Again, I am going to defer to a blog post I wrote, ‘A Trip to the Italian Emergency Room’. When sightseeing with my mom, we passed this unique-looking house not too far from where we live. My mom stuck her camera, and thus her arms, through the front gate. The dog there immediately sprang into defence mode and promptly bit my mom’s arm. Long story short, we ended up in the emergency room. It was a bit chaotic, but I did the best I could in Italian. They cleaned and bandaged my mom and then sent us to the waiting room to wait for her to get various shots. Overall, my mom had a positive experience with the healthcare system.

Now, how much do you think a trip to the emergency room, complete with bandages and shots, would be in the US? USD 500, USD 1500 or more? The total bill came to EUR 30, plus another EUR 4 for a prescription I had to pick up at a pharmacy. Pretty impressive, yes? You’re a foreigner with no health insurance, and they take care of you and send you on your way for next to pocket change.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Florence or Italy? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: I honestly felt so much safer in Florence than I ever do here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s hard to get exact numbers, but Italy has at most one-seventh the violent crime of the States.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Florence? What different options are available for expats?
A: The leasing system in Florence is a bit complicated. Unless you are doing a short-term vacation rental, you have to get a very long lease, at least three years. But there are ways to end the lease early. Like everything else in Italy, there is lots of paperwork, and you need someone who knows the system to help you. 

The apartments are very nice, and you can find or negotiate for air conditioning. You will not have the same level of electricity you are used to though. I could never turn on both the oven and hairdryer or one other appliance, or we’d blow the fuses.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: We lived near Piazza Beccaria. Everything we needed was nearby, but it was off the tourist path, so much quieter and had a more local feel. Though you could walk to the Duomo and everything else in about 20 minutes. We were also very close to the Arno River, which I would run along every morning. Honestly, it was the perfect location. 

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 Florence?
A: Honestly, the folks in Florence are a bit more “chiuso” (closed), in their own words, than in other parts of Italy such as Bologna. But it’s hard to blame them. Throngs of tourists and exchange students come every year and don’t always treat the city with respect. It’s also a very old and proud city, and there’s a bit of accompanying conservatism with that. Overall, though, most people were friendly, especially when I spoke Italian. There was a shop or two that no matter how much I tried, a straniera (foreigner) was not going to be welcomed with warmth…

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Meeting other expats is easy, and making local acquaintances was too, but making local close friends was more of a challenge. The best relationships with locals came from language exchanges. I came upon one through an ad and another organically with a retired lawyer who went to my gym (I’m a lawyer, though I wasn’t one in Italy). We would sit once a week at the gym café and talk politics, law, etc. We’d change between languages, so we both got to practice.

Working in Florence

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: My husband’s school got him his visa, and they promised to help me get mine, which would be for “family reunification”, not work. They did not. So, I had to hire someone to help me. There’s no way to navigate the questura (police headquarters) unless you are fluent or have someone who knows the system to help you. It also took a long time, so I did not have my required paperwork to travel beyond Italy for a long time. You are okay in Italy if you have proof that you have applied.

Q: What is the economic climate in Florence like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Honestly, everyone seems to struggle for work in Italy. If you can teach, you’re set. I worked online; I taught remotely for a university in the US. Other expats cobbled together jobs between teaching yoga, working in the tourist industry, walking dogs – you name it! 

Q: How does the work culture differ from the US? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Florence or Italy? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Italians did not believe me when I said I could open a business in a day in the US with one form and USD 25. Honestly, the job market in Italy is very tight, and the bureaucracy to start a business is infuriating. That is why many young Italians are leaving. I wouldn’t suggest going to Italy and just assuming it will be easy to figure something out because you are smart, creative and successful where you are. I thought all these things, and it was the first time in my life I couldn’t just make things happen. I would go with a plan in place or a savings account.

Family and children

Q: How did your spouse or partner adjust to your new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: My husband didn’t really enjoy his teaching position. He and I are not young, and he has a PhD. The international school system is really meant for young people who are going to stay for two years and then move on to another country. You can do this and not pay taxes for those two years. The teachers were treated more disposablely than expected as a result. Since I was only teaching online, I had time to go to immigrant school, learn the language and meet tons of people, so I had a better experience.

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: Just walking around in awe, having a Friends of the Uffizi pass to enter museums on a whim and bypass the lines, and eating!

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: If you want to learn Italian and adapt, I’d suggest going to a public school. The private American schools like the one my husband taught in are very expensive, around EUR 25,000 a year. But they are better for prepping students for college abroad as many Italians sent their kids there as well, including owners of famous wineries, fashion families, etc.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Florence or Italy?
A: As much as you can, don’t have preconceived expectations. As the saying goes, expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed, or expect to be frustrated. I learned to always bring a book to the post office. Take every day and every experience as it comes and for what it is. You will find enough joy to make up for the frustrations.

► Interviewed April 2020

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