1 August 2016

Sue Cooper - Expat in Italy

Sue Cooper - Expat in Italy

Ms. Sue Cooper is a British expat living in Italy. The story of how she came to live in Italy is, like most expats, through falling in love with the country while on holiday. Ms. Cooper has been living in Italy for almost 3 years now and has found a job, a partner and almost everything she needed to move to the country quite easily as soon as she decided to settle in.

Ms. Cooper has adjusted quite well to life in Italy but has admitted that the biggest challenge about living in this country is the struggling economy and the lower pay for everyone. Ms. Cooper said “People don’t make much money at all here. As an English teacher in Italy, I was offered 12000 EU a year which is considered an ok salary here. In the UK, I think I’d get at least twice that for a similar job. Not only is the pay bad, but the jobs are difficult to find in the first place. A good friend of mine has left Italy to return to her home country simply because it’s been so difficult for her to find a decent job.  The cost of living in terms of bills, compared with the UK, is comparable or perhaps higher here.”

Finding a job and adjusting to your host country’s standard of living is quite an adjustment, especially for expats from countries who are doing better economically.

Read more about Ms. Cooper’s experiences as an expat in Italy in her full interview below.

Q: Where are you originally from? What made you move out of your home country?

A: I was born in Portsmouth, on the south coast of the UK but I lived in London for several years before I moved out to Italy.  I love the UK, London is an amazing city and other places in the UK like the Lake District, Wales and Scotland are truly spectacular.  Before I moved, I had a very busy life in London - my job was stressful and I used to go out a lot. I could never make time for myself. I wanted a more serene life, doing the things I enjoyed. After a few years, I decided a soul destroying 9-5 office job and hectic lifestyle was not for me and decided to move to warmer and sunnier climes!

Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: Why did I choose Italy? I came here on holiday with a friend a few years back and fell in love with the country; the mountains, the stunning coastline, the big lakes, the beautiful villages and cities. I’ve travelled quite far and wide but Italy has been the only place I’ve visited and felt like I didn’t want to go back home.

I started off  by enrolling in a language school in Camerano (Le Marche) and renting a room in a shared apartment through the school. Camerano is a cute little village a few minutes drive from the Adriatic coast and on the edge of Monte Conero Regional Park. These days though, I live in a tiny little hamlet near a small town called Sarnano, still in the same region. It’s a few minutes drive away from the beautiful Sibillini Mountains which have some spectacular walks and I’m hoping, good ski-ing in the winter. I bought a house here in June so I’m still getting used to it but so far, I’m really happy in my new home. It couldn’t be much further away from my old hectic life!

Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in Italy?

A: I’ve been here since May 2013. I think my most difficult / annoying experience was when my car was towed away. I used to live in Falconara on a street which has a market every Monday. I was vigilant about ensuring the car was parked elsewhere on Mondays. Little did I know that it’s not just Mondays I had to worry about, it’s random other occasions too. The car had been towed and it took me the entire day and over a hundred euros to get the car back.  It would have been a difficult situation to resolve even in English but with my appalling Italian, it was a real challenge!

Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance was particularly difficult in Italy? What was your experience with these?

A: Finding work was easy for me. I got offered a job working as an English teacher in a school even though I wasn’t looking for work. My interview was not to see whether I would be good at the job, but when I could start. Because I’m part of the European Union, there were no work permits. The subject of Health Insurance still confuses me. I’m entitled to emergency care. I’ve been to see doctors and received prescriptions without ever having been asked for insurance details or anything else. I’ve been to the dentists and had the same experience. You can apply for a Tessera Sanitaria which is a healthcare card but nobody has ever asked me for this and so I’m not sure what purpose it actually serves. In fact, to get the Tessera Sanitaria, I needed to buy private healthcare insurance but now that’s run out and yet I still have the Tessera Sanitaria. All in all, the subject of health confuses me so my long term plan is try and remain healthy! However, if something happens my experiences so far indicate it shouldn’t be an insurmountable issue.

If you’re moving here you should register as  a “resident”. This means going to the local Comune (town hall) and filling out a form. You’ll need countless documents and I don’t think it’s possible to get the residency in anything less than 6 visits. Every time you go, they seem to require something else!  It’s worth it in the end I believe - as a resident you pay less tax on your house and I think some of the bills are cheaper. It’s worth noting that to be a resident, you’ll need to prove you have a job (and thereby contributing to the national healthcare system) or private healthcare insurance.

Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: For the first few months here I was single and renting an apartment with other students from the language school that I was attending. Now, I’m living here with my partner who’s also English. He moved out a few months later than I did so he’s a bit further behind with learning the language but otherwise, I think we’ve both adjusted pretty well. 

Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialize with other expats in Italy? How did you manage to find a social circle in Italy?

A: It’s so difficult making friends and meeting people! At my age, people often already have their core group of friends whether they’re an expat or not. When I moved here, I  not only wanted to make new friends but I  wanted to improve my Italian so I went about trying to set up some language swaps (where you meet a native tongue speaker of your desired language and then take it in turns to speak your languages so you both get practice at listening and talking).   I‘ve met some great people through that. Then, in a little community like mine, it’s a lot easier to meet people and to chat with them because you’re all so close knit. Sometimes I’ll be out for a walk near my house and if I meet someone walking the other way that I don’t know  they’ll just stop, put their hands on their hips and stare at me.  It’s  meant to be a friendly conversation starter, at least I treat it like that (and I do exactly the same back in response!) but I think to the native English it might come across as a bit rude! Expats here are few and far between but I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a couple of expats here through my blog and that’s been  really lovely. As much as I love Italy and the people here, after a while it’s great to share experiences with someone going through the same thing.

Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: I’m aware this will sound like I’m doing an advert, but there’s just so much to see and do! No matter where your interests lie, I really do think Le Marche has it all. If you’re into walking and nature like I am, there are lots of spectacular walks to take in the scenery (albeit poorly signposted!). If it’s architecture that you’re after or history, each of the towns is steeped in history and some of the towns look like they’ve not changed for centuries. The whole area seems to be scattered with Roman ruins. If you’re religious, well we have the Virgin Mary’s house here at Loreto  and some jaw dropping churches and cathedrals.   My favourite things to do are:

  1. Visit Numana and wander down to the port and along the beach towards Marcelli.
    2. Have a walk in the Monte Conero regional park and have a drink in Bar Belvedere. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, walk to the Due Sorelle beach but be warned, it’s a bit of a trek!
    3. Visit the impressive Loreto, a catholic pilgrimage sight and see where the Virgin Mary used to live (the house was purported to have been transported there by err, angels a few hundred years back).
    4. Go sunbathing at San Michele beach in Sirolo.
    5. Explore the Frasassi Caves, they’re the most spectacular I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot of caves!
    6. Take an evening stroll around the beautiful Portonovo from the “great” lake, around the fort along the seafront and back.
    7. Visit the busy hilltop town of Urbino which was said to be an inspiration for the Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle.
    8. Check out the mountains - either in the Monte Sibillini National Park (Sassotetto has one of my favourite views in Italy) or head to Monte Murano by Serra San Quirico (a quaint little village nestled in the hills - itself a worthwhile visit) which offer spectacular views.
    9. Have an evening stroll around the hill top town of Offagna and see the beautiful castle lit up at night.
  2. Go to Lago di Fiastro for an ice-cream and a swim in the lake. If you wander around the lake, there are lots of little “secret” bays to discover. It’s also a lovely drive between Fiastra and Grotto dei Frassi.
  3. Abbadia di Fiastra: This is a monastery with a huge plot of land. The monastery itself is very interesting and it makes for some nice leisurely walks because it’s all quite flat around there.

Q: How do you find the local culture and people in Italy?

A: They’re such an odd mix of people! Often they’re incredibly friendly, generous and caring  and it’s one of the reasons I love living here. But fairly often they’ll seem quite unfriendly. My neighbours here pop around with food and will always stop for a chat. They bend over backwards to make sure we’re ok. And yet my neighbours in my last place wouldn’t even respond to “ciao”. When we’re out on a walk in the middle of nowhere, occasionally we’ll meet someone coming the other way and in the UK, you’d smile, nod and say hello. Here, they often won’t even meet your eyes. The inconsistency is very odd!

The culture is interesting. Everything is a bit different. I suppose the main cultural difference for me has been store opening hours. In the UK, businesses try and make as much money as possible so they are open all hours under the sun. Here, you need to plan your shopping carefully as from about 1pm to 4pm shops are closed. If you want to buy some lunch, and it’s lunchtime, you’ve no hope at all. You’ll just need to wait until the shops open again.

The driving really is something to behold. For such a lovely and considerate nation, a lot of them do act like nutcases on the road. At night, I think it might be worse. They drive on your bumper and then swerve wildly into the middle of the road to see if they can overtake, often around bends, when cars are coming towards you the other way or when there’s a junction. I’m considering driving around with my hazard lights on all the time at night - it’s the only way they keep at a safe distance!

I think my favourite “cultural” thing is that the towns and villages have lots of events and celebrations -  it never seems to be long before there’s some local event or other to check out.  Last week there was a celebration of chestnuts... Next week, there’s  a celebration of truffles and this weekend just gone, there was the “Festa dei morti”, a festival held at the beginning of November every year to celebrate / commiserate the lives of their loved ones who have passed away. The cemeteries (which themselves are very interesting as they `bury` their dead above ground rather than in the ground like we do in the UK), are packed with people leaving flowers at the graves. In the evenings there’s often a candle-lit procession through the town. It’s really touching.

My least favourite “cultural” thing is probably the attitude towards women. There’s one programme on TV, a sports programme, where the male presenter talks about sport, and the woman next to him alternates between pouting at the presenter and the camera. She wears next to nothing and her dress barely contains her.  The very few women that have made it beyond decoration on TV, have had face lifts and so much Botox they can barely move their lips. Italy in many senses feels like it’s a couple of decades behind the UK which is nice in some ways, but sometimes it’s quite unbearable to watch!

Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Italy?

A: On the positive side, I’ve never come across anywhere so pretty, so relaxed, and with such great food. For me coming from the UK, it takes a couple of hours to fly to my local airport and costs about £50 for a return flight. It’s cheaper and quicker than going somewhere in my own country!  The culture is fascinating and for me, it sort of forces a state of relaxation.  I really love this region in particular - from my house I’m 20 minutes from the mountains where there are some fabulous walks and in the winter, ski pistes, and I’m 40 minutes from the beach. In between, there’s rolling hills and quaint villages to explore.

On the negative side, the country is a mess economically. It’s such a shame because there’s so much going for it but if you want to work and earn a fair amount of money doing it, then it’s not the place to be.  People don’t make much money at all here. As an English teacher in Italy I was offered 12000 EU a year which is considered an ok salary here. In the UK, I think I’d get at least twice that for a similar job. Not only is the pay bad, but the jobs are difficult to find in the first place. A good friend of mine has left Italy to return to her home country simply because it’s been so difficult for her to find a decent job.  The cost of living in terms of bills, compared to the UK, is comparable or perhaps higher here.

Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: I always miss my family and friends. I don’t get home sick for the UK though, just the people. However, technology these days has made it so much easier than it would have been  in the past and so I’ve only rarely felt lonely. More than anything, I don’t like that I’m not physically on hand for my friends and family any more if anything happens.  

Q: Do you have plans to