Living in Italy: 10 Tips On Surviving Expat Life

written by Tiana Kai
Living in Italy

I’ve recently passed my two year mark of living in Italy. The ups. The downs. The confusion. The exhilaration.

There are so many things that come to mind when I think about Italy now that I’ve been living in Italy and breathing Italy for two years. There are so many amazing positives like food, gelato (no, I don’t consider this food, it’s too good to be considered anything but gelato!), the colors of the buildings, the language, and on and on and on.

As for the cons, there are of course: the poor job market, lovely amounts of paperwork and culture shock in the beginning, but most people survive it and live here because they would not want to be anywhere else.

The longer I live here, the more I see expats in Italy being completely enamored with a country we now call home. Yes, many complain here and there, but they’re truly in love with Italy and I really love that about them! In Miami, we all complained about living in Miami yet we all stayed…until I finally booked it out of there and moved to Colorado.

Well, now I’m here and I want to share a few personal tips that helped make a difference in living in Italy—the little things that can be done to help settling in feel more settled in. A gift from me to you for my blog’s two year anniversary!

Living in Italy and The 10 Things I Wish I Did Sooner

The Duomo in Florence

View from Plaza Hotel Lucchesi’s new rooftop bar

1. Learn the language, duh!

This definitely should have been my main priority. After two years I think I speak pretty well, but it took some time in the beginning and I still have a lot of room for improvement.

What could I have done? Enrolled in more language classes at Lorenzo de’ Medici, as I only took a month course of intense advanced Italian. I wish I dedicated one day a week to watching a movie in Italian with Italian subtitles. Listen to Italian music more. READ, god I wish I read more often in Italian…that’s probably one of the best ways to learn. When I studied here over ten years ago I read baby books in Italian and that helped a lot, but when my semester was up I was still an average level speaker, nothing like now.

I want to learn how to speak Italian. For years, I’d wished I could speak Italian, a language I find more beautiful than roses. — Elizabeth GilbertTweet it

2. Accept that things are different, waaaay different

Living in Italy

I can accept this view!

In my first months here I couldn’t help but compare things to how they are done in the States. Living in Italy does come with a price and that price is called irrationality. Things just don’t seem that rational, but I’ve learned to expect certain behaviors now although it still boggles my mind.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. — Reinhold NiebuhrTweet it

3. Exercise, move that body to counter all the carbs

When I moved here I had not one thing to do… I didn’t have a job, I didn’t really know the language, so I signed up at Virgin Active and it helped me a great deal. BUT, as soon as we moved neighborhoods I stopped going to the gym. I had nothing to motivate me to move, be active or stay active.

You may appreciate my post on the new gym rules I learned while moving to Italy, it’s a total sarcastic post.

After getting a bit fat after marriage, I really need to get my body back in order, so…I recently picked up tennis again thanks to Alexandra and Helen. I had not played in over two years and it feels amazing to play again. It has now motivated me to sign up for tennis clinics by my house and move more.

The only bad workout is the one that didn’t happen.Tweet it

4. Get a bike already!

Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Meet Valentina, my bike!

Can you believe that it really took me two years to get a bike? Florence is so small that a bike is perfect for my little city life.

I always had an excuse to not buy a bike, like “no, we’re leaving on a trip, so why spend money on a bike if I won’t be here to use it” or “mammamia, it’s too cold out!” or “mammamia, it’s too hot out!” I’m happy to say that I FINALLY got one four months—her name is Valentina—and after a week I finally was able to ride a bike like an Italian!

Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use. — Charles M. SchulzTweet it

5. Get a monthly ATAF bus pass

Before I bought Valentina I spent two years paying for each individual bus ticket which runs 1.20€ for 90min. With a monthly pass I would have spent 35€ (23€ if you’re a student) a month instead of, say 50€, especially because stupid me would buy the ticket on the bus which jumps to 2€ a ticket! Even worse, I would have saved much more if I had purchased an annual pass. Anyway, I have Valentina now, but to think that I spent more money for no reason is just dumb.

6. Shop at the local markets

I live by two large grocery chains (Coop and Esselunga), so I must admit that I would frequent them too often, even ordering food and products from Esselunga online. I never made a strong effort to shop at the amazing local food markets that we have, like Mercato Sant’Ambrogio and Mercato Centrale because they are a bit further from my house.

Luckily, there’s an Orto Frutta market across my building and I’m afraid to say it, but I didn’t go there much until after a year or so because every time I wanted food I also needed other things that they don’t sell, so I opted for the grocery store. Tsk tsk tsk!

The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison. — Ann WigmoreTweet it

7. Connect with locals, one-on-one

Graffiti in Italy

Charming graffiti all over Florence

I love to party and meet people in social settings, but what really gets my intellectual mind and emotional juices flowing are one-on-one meet-ups with friends. I’m not into the superficial Ciao Bella! mentality where everyone is Bella and they come and go with the wind. I really need to feel like I connect with someone to enjoy their company and feel like I should be spending time with them.

In the beginning, I made somewhat of an effort to meet up with other local expats and Italians, but I could have put myself out there way more than I did. So, after two years I can finally say that I’ve enjoyed more of those one-on-one moments with girlfriends to really connect, get to know each other and feel a sense of confidence and comfort with them. It feels great to trust in the friends that you have and I think the only way to do that is to really get to know someone.

A good friend is cheaper than therapy.Tweet it

8. Find your version of Cheers, as in the bar

Besides getting to know my Ortofrutta sellers well, I should have also chosen one coffee bar and one aperitivo bar and consistently frequented them in the beginning. It really helps to get to know the area, get to know the culture, practice Italian and maybe once in a while get a nice discount.

Since living in my current neighborhood of Campo di Marte, I’ve obviously gotten to know my local bars, but I didn’t put much effort in the beginning. It’s one of those things that’s so easy, yet easily overlooked. 

You wanna be where you can see, your troubles are all the same, you wanna be where everybody knows your name. — Cheers theme songTweet it

9. Start a blog

Yes, I know you’re reading my blog now, but I didn’t start it right away. I waited and waited and thought about it for a few months. I think I didn’t really know what I wanted to focus on, so with a push from my husband I wrote my first post in August 2012, here it is, two years ago.

My blog and social media have been amazing ways to meet other expats in Italy, although I recommend mingling with local Italians too. The blog was a great way to express myself, track my move, track my life and share it with those back home.

It has developed into something much bigger than I would have imagined. Because of my blog and Instagram accounts @tianapix and @notmynonni I get invited on blog tours and get to experience amazing things in Florence for FREE, like vintage Fiat tours, bike tours, rooftop aperitivo events and Segway tours.

There are so many useful blogs out there to get you started like CopyBlogger or blogs that share other stories about Life in Italy like Inghams Italy Blog.

I used to kick myself for not starting my blog sooner especially when I had more free time, but you live and you learn.

Finding success is all about taking action. You can read all you want, but nothing will happen until you execute. — Pat FlynnTweet it

10. Get a dog

Fiat photobomber! #macintoshlovesclassics #seemycity

A post shared by Tiana Kai (@tianapix) on

You know that dogs have so many incredible benefits? Dogs make us better humans and actually raise our oxytocin. As for moving to a new country, having a dog forces you to be in social situations that you normally wouldn’t find yourself in. For example, now you have the perfect excuse to practice your Italian with all the old ladies at the dog park! Or, learn random words at the vet’s office.

My husband Nicco had a dog and due to his crazy work schedule he had to give Macintosh II to his mom. She has a huge yard and other dogs, so Macintosh was able to stay outside all day and play. A few months ago, Nicco got him back from his mom so he’s our kid now. Yup, after two years, we got a dog! I was extremely hesitant because of my allergies, but so far the only thing that I had to learn to accept is the incredible mass of hair Macintosh sheds, mammamia!

Dogs never bite me. Just humans. ― Marilyn MonroeTweet it

11. Your turn!

What’s something that really helped you fit in and acclimate where you live? Something to do with dating perhaps, or different courses that forced you to be around more locals? I’m interested in any tips that I can incorporate into my expat life in Italy…besides the dating, I’m married remember?

Please share this post and pin those pics! 

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36 comments

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Jackie August 8, 2014 at 5:05 am

I just had my two-year expat anniversary in Taiwan and can relate to so many things on your list, especially about learning the language, shopping at local markets and just accepting that some things would seem way strange and different to me. Most days I love living in Taiwan, some days I hate it, but I am so thankful to get to experience the life of an expat 🙂 The one thing that made the greatest difference for us was getting a scooter. Now we can move freely about without worrying about bus schedules/overcoming language barriers.

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Tiana Kai August 8, 2014 at 9:05 am

A scooter sounds fun! I completely agree that being thankful for even getting to live abroad is worth more negatives, so it’s a nice balance. Whenever I wander around downtown I always think “Wow, so few people get to see this, get to live this, I would not give this experience up for anything!”

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Cassandra August 8, 2014 at 11:16 am

This is all sound advice for expats! Many of the items–learn the language, connect with locals and expats–paralleled in my life in Spain. I really wish that I’d started shopping at the neighborhood fruteria earlier and not just chosen the easy route of the supermarket. Now I had an actual relationship with the vendor, a richer experience, and better produce.

Piggybacking off of the comment about the ATAF bus pass, I would add that you have to remind yourself that you will make a lot of mistakes in the beginning. Innocent, time-consuming mistakes. Costly mistakes. Ones that later you’ll kick yourself for after you realize there was a simpler solution. But, in the end, it’s all part of the integration tango. And that’s also why it’s helpful to network with others in a similar situation, either online or in the same city.

After I went through a difficult summer–the “second year slump”–a few years ago, I wrote a physical list of all of the unique, positive aspects of Madrid and why I liked living there. It may sound silly, but having that list hanging on my wall helped change my outlook. I wish I had kept a list of all of the things that had first struck me as different/bewildering to look back on now and see how far I’ve come!

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Tiana Kai August 8, 2014 at 2:05 pm

I am completely loving your list idea, this may be a great post and things to keep in mind no matter what! Living abroad is amazing, so I always remind myself how lucky I am to even be in a different country and that nothing lasts forever, so to soak it up as much as possible!

Amazing all the silly mistakes we make, I guess we all do them. I’m just glad that I finally got a bike, so fun!

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Cassandra August 8, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Thanks! It is amazing to live abroad, we’re very lucky. Life has it’s ups and downs though, no matter where you hang your hat.

And–I wish I had room for a bike!! Maybe in our next apartment 🙂

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Tiana Kai August 8, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Well, you have a scooter! I just have a bike lol 😉

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flavorverse August 8, 2014 at 2:14 pm

#3 and #4. This should be engraved on stone tablets and handed out to every would-be long-term traveler/expat. It is *so* easy to gain those pounds when you’re eating out every second day. It would’ve been even harder for you since you’re living in Italy where they really, really love their carbs (breakfast: bruschettas. Lunch: bruschettas. And spaghetti. Dinner: bruschettas. And risotto).

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Tiana Kai August 8, 2014 at 3:09 pm

The honest to god truth…even when we eat at home it’s a nightmare! We buy amazing bread or my husbands makes killer bread that we kill in an hour. I think the trick is portions, so I try to not over do it, but I have to say I ate some amazing things! My only saving grace for not gaining MORE weight is that I usually skip dessert.

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Paige Miller August 8, 2014 at 3:49 pm

I think #6 and #7 have been the most important for me living in Spain. My favorite thing to do now is take my little granny cart to the market and talk with the vendors, but I always thought that was so intimidating when I first moved to Madrid. It’s also so important to make local friends. You can fall in the trap of hopping from one international party to the next, making acquaintances but no real friends.

And the dog is very high on my list!

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Tiana Kai August 9, 2014 at 11:43 am

Ya, acquaintances can sometimes be very boring and unstimulating especially if you’ve spoken to them more than on five different occasions and they are stil not really friends. One on one or a close group of friends is so much more fun!

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Alexandra L. A August 8, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Number one is the number one way to REVEL in your life as an expat. Learn the language, kids!
xo Alex

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Tiana Kai August 9, 2014 at 11:32 am

Definitely!

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Cat of Sunshine and Siestas August 10, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Great post. When I moved to Spain, no one used social media to connect, so I felt really alone. I really should have had the college freshman perspective to try and meet others, sign up for a class or just go to the gym to try some classes. Here’s to many more years!!

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Tiana Kai August 11, 2014 at 10:46 am

Yes, we live and we learn! I learned a few good words in my Italian Pilates class, that is until we moved…so sad. Getting out more helps and the dog really helps as all these ladies want me to keep them company at the dog park!

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Tiana Kai August 13, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Cool thanks for stopping by!! 😉 See you around here and there and everywhere online!

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Tiana Kai August 13, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Very true! By the way, your comment was marked as spam because you added a URL… you don’t have to add your blog URL because your name links to your site anyways. 😉

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Tiana Kai August 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Thanks so much Carina and yes I should really read more Italian than I do now and watch movies in Italian. Good luck with your studies and on staying in this beautiful country!

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arttrav August 20, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Ha! thanks for the shout outs. I actually purchase a yearly bus pass every january, and so around november or december I start grumbling about paying out 320 euros for really really crappy service, that I then complain about on a twice daily basis. I once started an @ihateataf twitter account but then decided just to tweet with that and the #fuckataf hashtags instead. I try not to be so negative 🙂 I always consider the options: biking is bad for my asthma and arthritis and just too far when I work downtown. Tommaso says on a scooter I would kill myself within 4 months. And I looked into buying one of those stupid little cars, but then you’re stuck in traffic just like the larger cars, only more squishable. So, bear it. I can’t even say grin and bear it. Trying to deal.

I have found YELP to be a great social outlet. I wrote an article a while back about ways to meet people in Florence, and yelp was a big one for me, as well as the business networking group ToscanaIN, which unfortunately is mostly dead now. It is tempting to just say “ciao bella” there too but sometimes you get forced to know people better and it’s really exciting. I’ve made some new friends.

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Tiana Kai August 21, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Omg your Ataf comments are priceless. I’m a wuss when it comes to a scooter, so will stick to my bike for now. Every time I ride it I laugh and tell myself “you’re so silly to have waited 2 years for this!” The bike has really changed my life. If the bus didn’t make me as nauseous as a pregnant woman in her first trimester then I wouldn’t mind it as much.

I had a friend in Miami that was really cool, someone that everyone likes and he told me that it took him two years to finally like his new life in Miami…two years to have a good group of friends. I thought that sounded crazy and now I totally understand him! See you on the courts babe.

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anapple October 3, 2014 at 6:10 am

You are amazing! I am so inlove with Italy too. And I am hoping to be there soon. How did you become an expat? Please advise.

Thank you.

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Tiana Kai October 5, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Hey @anapple, it all depends on why and how you are moving here. The easiest way is to come with a student visa. I was a student here years ago and then moved back two years ago, but I am a resident since I am married. Three months is a good time to check out the city to make sure it’s where you want to be…and save money!

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anapple October 7, 2014 at 7:05 am

Hi @Tiana Kai oh thank you. I really appreciate that. Bdw I enjoy reading your blog. In a way I get updated with Italy. Thanks!

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Tiana Kai October 7, 2014 at 9:54 am

Thanks so much, glad you enjoy reading it! Good luck on the move and paperwork!

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Julianne October 8, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Great post!! I have been here for about 15 years. I live in Rimini, where there is no expat community at all. Lucky you to be in Florence!

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Tiana Kai October 9, 2014 at 10:33 am

Florence has it’s moments too, but it’s great to find close friends no matter where you live! 🙂 I think your city is full of bloggers for the conference, sorry to miss it.

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Julianne October 9, 2014 at 11:18 am

Lol… yeah i kind of missed it too. It was better last year. They changed the name this year (not for the better) & did no advertising. I didn’t even know it was on until I was walking by the beach and stumbled upon it.

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Tiana Kai October 10, 2014 at 11:28 am

Oh, I would have gone but it conflicted with another trip. Maybe next time!

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Deanna Gardner May 11, 2015 at 2:55 am

Can u live off 900 US per month

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Tiana Kai May 11, 2015 at 6:17 pm

Great question. The exchange rate has some to do with this and now that the EU is weak your $900 can go a longer way. Florence is expensive, but if you find a cheap place to live (with a roommate) you could maybe have $400-500 after rent. If you are an Italian resident you will have free health care, which is what I have. I’m not sure how international insurance works, so I recommend looking into that. Also, you don’t need a car in Florence (not sure what city you are actually asking about), which saves money and trains are pretty cheap to travel the country.

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