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Interview with Brian – a South African living in Italy

Updated 16 Mar 2010

Brian Bogaard, an ex-South African now living in Milan with his family, tells us about his experiences of expat life in Italy.

Read more about the country in the Expat Arrivals Italy country guide, or read more expat experiences in Italy.

About you

Q: Where are you originally from?  
A: Durban born and bred – moved to Johannesburg in 1997

Q: Where are you living now?  
A: Milan, Villaggio Ambrosiano

Q: How long you have you lived in Milan?  
A: Seven years

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?  
A: Wife and nine-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter (in 2003)

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?  
A: Company asked me to transfer. Was the General Manager in SA for a large international computer company, now in charge of a Business Unit for EMEA.

About Milan

Q: What do you enjoy most about Milan, how’s the quality of life?  
A: An unbelievable sense of history – dates back to 300BC. The location is great with fast access to other parts of Europe by car, plane or train. The weather is relatively mild for Europe.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?  
A: Miss our friends dearly (although they visit often). Miss close buddies in general. Some cultural differences here. Miss the fantastic weather with short winters. Miss the local suburb newspaper and Radio Highveld (94.7)!

Q: Is the Milan safe?  
A: Very, but not perfect. Housebreaking does occur, however it's on a far lower scale and not confrontational. A popular method is to gas the occupants and then gain entry. The victims wake up in the morning with a dry throat and an empty house. Pickpockets are a threat to the careless (as I was in Lisbon)

About living in Milan

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Milan as an expat?  
A: I prefer out of town, so am happy where I live. Milan is surrounded by good areas. The classic triangle of schools, work and home combined with your choice of transport will define the right area. My office moved across to the opposite side of Milan, so I face an hour’s commute by car in the morning (a good time to catch up on phone calls and thoughts for the day!).

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Italy?  
A: Expensive and very small compared to SA, but you can get a reasonable deal if you shop around, and you are more flexible. The average Italian family lives in a 120 sqm apartment (or smaller).

Q: What’s the cost of living in Italy compared to South Africa? What is cheap or expensive in particular?  
A: Utilities in Italy are the highest in Europe (gas, electricity and water). Petrol and diesel are virtually double that in SA. Red meat is very expensive and unless you know where to go, not good quality as Italy is not a big red meat-eating country (especially in the north)

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?  
A: We try to mix with more Italians and less ex-pats. When you make friends with too many expats you find yourself losing out as they typically move on within two years or so. Hard on the kids. It's highly advisable to mix with the locals where possible.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?  
A: Really tough and it takes effort. You have to stop yourself comparing them to your established mates, as the culture is different.

About working in Milan

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?  
A: Fortunately the company did the hard slog. Still, it's not easy being a non-EU citizen and that alone has several traps – especially concerning tertiary education.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Milan, is there plenty of work?  
A: The Italian unemployment rate is in the worst three of Western Europe, however for skilled workers there are opportunities. It's tougher on the locals for ordinary jobs.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?  
A: Time management in Italy is considered something that Germans do. As with most cultures, some work exceptionally hard and some slacken off. I would say the average is high compared to the average in SA.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?  
A: Yes, the company took care of most of the formalities.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?  
A: Not really, we accepted the compromise before we moved. When we get visitors from SA, we feel the living area is a bit small.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?  
A: The younger the easier it is for relocating, as well as learning a new language. My daughter (12 at the time) struggled a bit, but my son (eight at the time) was fine.

Q: What are the schools like in Milan, any particular suggestions?  
A: There is a choice of at least three international schools. The British “Sir James Henderson” is the most reputable (especially in the arts) but also the most expensive.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Italy?  
A: Fortunately I am blessed with general good health. The government general health system does work but requires limitless patience. Our GP does speak English (unusual) however the rest of the medical health system generally does not. Ideally, you get a private medical health deal from the company or help with the process. Getting medical or banking advice in a foreign language certainly is a challenge. Government health excludes glasses and dentistry.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?  
A: Keep an open mind, try to adapt to local foods and customs, respect the locals (except when driving!). Taking an active approach to learning the local language will help to remove a huge obstacle in you settling down.

~ Interviewed April 2010

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